Common name: Dandelion
Latin: Taraxacum officinale
Family: Asteraceae/ Compositeae – daisy family.
Botanical features: Herbaceous perennial with single yellow flower heads each made up of numerous florets on unbranched, hollow stems. Leaves are toothed or deeply lobed and form a basal rosette growing from a mostly unbranched taproot. The fruits are borne on silky pappi forming a globe which is easily blown apart by wind or by wish-makers alike.
Dandelion flowers are surely one of the most joyful sights at this time of year, carpeting roadsides and fields with their merry abandon. They have long been considered heralds of the return of the sun, blooming in spring, opening with the day and closing at night. True to form, this last week they have remained stubbornly closed in the incessant grey-skied drizzle.
Dandelion is another of those plants that blurs the line between food and medicine as all parts can be used for culinary and medicinal purposes. It is not without irony that plants commonly viewed as weeds like nettle and dandelion are some of the most nutritious foods and helpful medicines we have available to us. The sorry result of living in a time and place of seeming plenty is that we forget to give value to that which is most worthy of it. Dandelions should always be encouraged in our gardens, not just for our own wellbeing but because they also support a variety of butterflies, moths and other insects.
The actions of dandelion are many and varied but include; hepatic, cholagogue, diuretic, alterative, anti-rheumatic, aperient, tonic, nutritive and digestive.
Dandelion flowers are the part least used in medicine but they do have some of both the cleansing and nutritive properties of the leaf and root. They are good infused in apple cider vinegar, either alone or with the whole plant, left for a month to six weeks and then strained to make a useful addition to salads, stir fries, soups and veggies.
They also make a lovely infused oil but be careful to pick them on a dry, sunny day when all the dew has dried as the high moisture content can easily spoil your oil. This is commonly used as a rub for fatigued and aching muscles after infusing for a week on a sunny windowsill and then straining. I like to combine dandelion, St. John’s wort and rosemary infused oils to make a warming and healing massage oil for everyday back aches and pains. Susun Weed also recommends it as a breast massage oil which is interesting because the greens were used in the past as a poultice for swollen breasts and breast cancers.
Do take a little care when picking though as the milky latex contained in the stem can cause contact dermatitis in some sensitive individuals.
The leaves are tasty in salads when used sparingly. They are bitter so I tend to just use a few amongst the spicier tastes of mustards or wild garlic and the sweeter taste of lettuce but if you want the full medicinal effect then you can make a salad consisting entirely of dandelion leaves. I recently came across this wonderful video from 94 year old Clara about how she makes her dandelion leaf salads, definitely worth checking out! Culpepper recommended it as a pot herb, made into broth with a few Alexanders. Alexanders are growing freely right now so it’s a good time to give this a try.
The leaves are one of, if not the, primary diuretic used in modern herbal medicine. They affect the water balance in our bodies by encouraging excretion of excess fluids but they also strengthen the entire urinary system. They are well known for their country name Pissabed, or the French pissenlit, but interestingly they were also used in the past to treat bed wetting and incontinence, as well as causing it. They are a useful addition to a constitutional formula where there is oedema due to heart failure or high blood pressure as they will not aggravate the cause whilst treating the symptoms as pharmaceutical diuretics have been shown to. This is because, rather than depleting it, they restore the body’s natural balance of potassium as the areal parts of the herb can contain as much as 4% of this vital mineral. Dandelion greens also contain iron, calcium and a host of vitamins including A, B’s and C.
As well as being eaten in foods they can be dried and added to teas or made into tincture.
They can vary in size and colour depending on where they grow as this page from my journal attempts to capture. The larger, leafier ones are nicer in salads in my opinion as the smaller, darker leaves can be a little tough.
The root of dandelion is the part that is commonly used to support the liver and gallbladder though the whole herb has enough bitterness to get the bile flowing and tone digestion. All tap roots have a nourishing quality to them as they act as a storehouse for vital nutrients and dandelion’s roots go deep into the earth to access minerals held in the subsoil. It is a helpful medicine anywhere that there is heat or stagnation in the liver as it demonstrates, in Cupepper’s words, an ‘opening and cleansing quality.’ It both stimulates the release of bile from the gallbladder and the production of more in the liver so it can help in our ability to digest fats and can also work as a mild laxative or aperient by toning the whole digestive system. Moving liver congestion can help our bodies to work more efficiently on many levels and assist in conditions from headaches to skin conditions to foggy headedness and inability to concentrate. The liver also processes hormones so dandelion root can be very helpful in PMS and other hormonal complaints.
Dandelion root is an excellent tonic for the pancreas as it works on both the exocrine and endocrine functions of this important organ. By stimulating the release of gastric juices it aids the digestive capacity and by increasing insulin secretions it helps to balance blood sugar levels.
Roots are commonly harvested in autumn or spring. In autumn the long tap root is busy storing nutrients and polysaccharides away for the winter and the resulting medicine will be sweeter and richer in inulin so more appropriate for people who need building and nourishing, general digestive support or help balancing blood sugar levels. In spring the roots will be nice and bitter and great for people who have symptoms that indicate more heat and inflammation in the liver. Having said that most people can benefit from a more stimulating bitter in spring and a more nourishing bitter as the cold months come around so there is something to be said for making batches of both to use at the appropriate time as well as just looking at the energetics of the individual.
The energetics of dandelion are interesting. It is considered cooling due to it’s bitterness, and drying, primarily for its diuretic properties. Therefore it is often used for people who are hot, red faced, liverish and irritable, swollen, stressed and with high blood pressure. For the most part the leaf does tend more towards the cooling, drying and cleansing end of the spectrum but the root I find to be more complex. I currently have three dandelion tinctures sat on my shelf and each one is completely different from the next. This is partly due to the time of year they were harvested as explained above but also due to other environmental factors. One of the tinctures is so thick, sweet and nutritious that I would almost classify it as moist rather than dry and would always think to use it for people who were depleted, weak or fatigued. This is one reason why it’s so important to taste your herbs and get to know them rather than assuming all dandelion tinctures will be the same. I happily use dandelion root for a variety of people who need some liver support, though I would balance it with other herbs as appropriate to the individual.
Dandelion has often been associated with joy and I like to think it encourages happiness both actively, through the unfettered cheeriness of its flowers, and passively, by releasing anger and emotions held in the liver and allowing the happiness that is naturally our nature to shine through.
I will finish with a quote from Culpepper which I found most amusing. Always one to call it as he saw it you can understand why he was so unpopular with the medical establishment of his day. I wonder how much has changed in the intervening years. “You see here what virtues this common herb hath, and that is the reason the French and Dutch so often eat them in the Spring; and now if you look a little farther, you may see plainly without a pair of spectacles, that foreign physicians are not so selfish as ours are, but more communicative of the virtues of plants to people.”