- a plant that is not valued where it is growing and is usually of vigorous growth
- a wild plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with cultivated plants
- any wild plant that grows in an unwanted place, especially in a garden or field where it prevents the cultivated plants from growing freely
“A weed is but an unloved flower.”
― Ella Wheeler Wilcox
“When life is not coming up roses, look to the weeds and find the beauty hidden within them.”
“Weeds are just someone else’s flowers”
― Anthony T. Hincks
What is a weed? In my mind, it is simply something I didn’t mean to be there. But is that necessarily a bad thing? Can beauty, joy, utility not be found in the plants we commonly refer to as weeds?
I want to explore this a bit with you all. Once I learned to look at these “weed” plants in a new light, they are a constant, unwavering, stubborn, incessant, seemingly indestructible source of joy! And who doesn’t need a little extra joy in their life?
First on the list is a weed everyone loves! Children love to make wishes and blow the white puffball seeds, sending them off in the world with their hopes and dreams attached. Foragers and herbalists alike love the prolific nature and closeness of the plants that give all of themselves to our nourishment and care. Even the landscapers and homeowners love to hate these stubborn, almost impossible to eradicate “pests” in their perfect lawns. Can you guess what it is?
Dandelion flowers are one of the first spots of color to arrive in the spring. And my, don’t they come in with a bang! That bright, sunny yellow, contrasting with the deep greens under a blue spring sky. I can almost smell the fresh and new in this picture!
Dandelion loves people. Think about where it grows…near people. It’s rare to see dandelion in the forest, or on untouched-by-humans land. It grows in our lawns, our flower beds, our fields, between the cracks of our sidewalks, along our roadsides. Everywhere humans are, dandelions are. My mother has dandelions in her pebble lawn in southern Arizona. I recently heard an interview in which someone had traveled to the rainforest to study plant life there. While amazed and bewildered by the plethora of plants, most of them completely unfamiliar, within the rainforest itself, they were equally surprised and delighted to find dandelion growing around the homes in the villages. Dandelions have been found on nearly every continent of the world! They thrive with us, and yet we are constantly trying to get rid of them.
The root of it
Dandelions have a long tap root. The older the plant, the wider it spreads and the deeper into the earth it grows. Anyone who has tried to eradicate a plant by digging up the roots knows they are very well rooted, the thin, growing ends break off pretty easily, and if you leave any part of it in the ground, you’ll soon have another plant growing.
But that annoying tap root is what makes it so valuable to those who most want to get rid of it. Like any plant with a long tap root, it drills down into the earth, loosening even the hardest packed soil, encouraging good drainage in the area, and allowing other, weaker roots to get established in those areas. Additionally, the tap roots go deep, pulling vital nutrients that are buried deep up to the surface to rebuild the normally nutrient deficient soil in which dandelions make their homes. So you can dig and till and amend and seed and fertilize until your back goes out…or let nature do the work. After all, while you can guess all day what that spot needs, nature knows, and will fix it far better.
When I first ventured out to pick dandelion, I thought “I know what a dandelion is, this should be cake.” But when I looked, I found so many plants that could be, but were all a little different, and I began to second guess myself. Even now, in early spring, I have to look twice to know for sure. Luckily, there are no poisonous look-alikes! Other similar plants may not taste as good, or be as palatable due to hairs on the leaves, or have the same medicinal actions, but they won’t make you sick if you pick the wrong one by mistake.
For me, the easiest way to identify the plant is through the flowers. This is a dandelion flower:
All dandelion flowers look like this. There is only one single flower on one, straight stem. The stem is hollow and contains a milky white sap.
This is a false dandelion:
False dandelion has very similar flowers, like other look-alikes, although I’d say they are smaller, and not as “full.” They grow on long, solid stems, which are more bendy, and most often will have several branches, all of which end in another flower.
The name dandelion comes from the French dent de lion, which literally means “lion’s tooth.” And the leaves are indeed “toothed.” Dandelion also always grows in what’s called a rosette. Simply, that all the leaves and flowers come from the same spot on the ground (where the tap root will be) and radiate outwards. Dandelion leave also grow along the ground, not upwards, like wild lettuce.
The dandelion plant (on the left) is in fact growing upwards along the brick wall behind it but would be along the ground if given the room to do so. The wild lettuce (on the right) stands upright without any support. While both plants’ leaves are toothed, and both plants grow in a rosette, if you look closely at the wild lettuce, there are little spiky hairs that grow all along the central part of the leaves on the underside. Cat’s-ear, another look-alike, is not so much toothy, but curved, and is covered in fuzz…like a cat’s ear. Dandelion leaves don’t have any spikes or hairs or fuzz.
I’ve found, the older the plant, the deeper the teeth. As a side note, I also find the older plants (deeper teeth) tend to be more bitter. I picked a few varying leaves from different plants around my yard to show the similarities, and differences you may encounter.
The leaves are (guesstimate) arranged from youngest to oldest. You can see how it may be confusing if you aren’t entirely sure what you are looking at. I like the younger leaves (on the left) for eating mostly because they simply have more to them, but I tend towards the older plants (on the right) when I’m harvesting for medicine. I have no scientific support for my actions, but something about the longevity and age speaks to me for healing prowess.
One thing about all the leaves though is that they are all toothed to some extent. And the majority of the “toothing” points back towards the center of the rosette.
Of course, if still in doubt, you can wait for a bud to appear:
Food for thought
Every part of the dandelion is edible. Every. single. part.
Starting with the roots:
Dandelion roots can be harvested (I like to harvest after a rain while the ground is still soft), scrubbed well, and used in cooking, or to make dandelion “coffee.” I’m not going to lie, individually scrubbing the dirt out of every crevice of the really thin roots is no quick thing, so I generally try to get the really big ones.
Once cleaned, I like to keep a few fresh ones, and chop up the rest to dry. The fresh go in soups or stews. There isn’t much noticeable flavor once cooked, but I know it’s giving that soup or stew an added nutritional bump, so why not.
I chop the drying roots up into smallish pieces, about 1/4 inch chunks, and put them in the dehydrator for a day or two (depending on when I remember to get them!). When they are completely dry, they are very hard, like little stones. I’ll then jar up half to add to my medicinal supply, and roast the other half for “coffee” (recipe below).
Into the leaves:
I’ve mentioned before how easy it is to just snip off a few leaves and toss them in with your salads. In fact, I’ve been to a few restaurants that have dandelion leaves in their “spring mix” salads, and I’ve even seen the leaves for sale in the produce section of several grocery stores! I also add the leaves to my cooked greens and spring tonics. I also dry some leaves for teas, or to use in the mid-summer and winter months when the I don’t have access to fresh young leaves.
The flower buds are so very delightful to pop off their stems! There’s something so satisfying about the little POP sound they make, you may find yourself picking way more than intended!
The buds can go in salads along with the leaves, although they do tend to be a bit more bitter. You can also toss them into soups and stews (seems to be a trend with everything I pick!) or lightly sauté them with some oil/butter, onion and garlic. YUM!! If they are still tightly closed, there really is no worry about critters inside, so I prefer to use them whole.
But my absolute favorite way to use the buds, when I gather enough, is to pickle (or ferment) them! They are like extra-big capers, and can be used as such….or just snacked on. 🙂
Ah, the flowers:
I love that day in spring when I wake up and all the dandelions have bloomed in my yard! The green with a thousand little yellow dots sprinkled about fills me with utter joy. My daughter and I will venture out, wandering the lawn, waiting for a flower to say “pick me! pick me!” and in they go! By the end of it, we have a basket full of sunshine!
I know the flowers can be eaten in salads (although I haven’t personally tried this). I have put them in stir-fries, soups (surprise!), and even lightly sautéed them much like I do the buds and serve them over rice, maybe with some greens thrown in for good measure. They do retain much of their color if cooked lightly and are simply beautiful on the bed of white.
I have also read about dandelion wine, and my sweetheart and I are planning to try that out someday soon. I will post it and the results if we do!
Last summer, I asked my daughter what she thought we should do with our flowers, and she said tincture. So we did. I did a non-traditional tincture in a sunny windowsill (vs. the normal cool, dark place), and I have to say, through the dark winter months when I chose the flower tincture over the leaf or root, I swear I felt some of that warm summer sunshine! I know, woo-woo…but true enough for me.
Tinctures and Vinegars
Tinctures and vinegars can be made from any part of the dandelion. Medicinally, dandelion (again the whole plant) is very supportive to the liver, and thus the urinary and digestive systems.
As a bitter, it stimulates digestion, increasing bile production, and helps your body’s ability to break down fats and digest food in general. Personally, I have found if I eat a very fatty meal, especially when it comes to beef (probably a bit of a leftover from the alpha-gal) I get a pretty bad stomach ache. A dropperful of dandelion tincture, preferably before, but ok after too, will keep that crampy pain in the pit of my stomach away.
It also supports overall liver function. The liver process and flushes out everything we put in our bodies. So increased liver function, increased fluid movement. A gentleman came to me with complaints that he couldn’t pass urine. He had some mild pain in his side, but nothing to suggest infection. He also had pressure in his prostate area, which he’d had problems with before, and believed it was enlarged. There was also fear of kidney stones, but nothing to confirm that yet. He was visiting from out of state, and it wasn’t quite bad enough to go to the ER here, but it would be a week before he’d be home to see his own doctor, and was looking for some relief, and the ability to empty his bladder, in the interim.
After discussing diet, lifestyle, any other health issues, etc., I told him to drink at least one glass of stinging nettle infusion daily, and gave him dandelion tincture to take 3 times a day. A week later he reported “It worked!” he was peeing freely and had no more pain or uncomfortable pressure. I believe he still had deeper issues with his prostate to be dealt with separately, but the vacation, and long road-trip home were made enjoyable again.
Tinctures draw out the medicinal qualities of the plant or herb, whereas vinegars are used to draw out the minerals of the herb, which dandelion is high in. These now flavored vinegars can then be used as you would any other vinegar; as salad dressing, in cooking, or simply drunk as a tonic.
The only difference between making tinctures and vinegars is the menstruum (the liquid you put in with the herb to draw out what you want).
Start with a clean jar with a lid. Fill the jar with your fresh plant material, not too tightly, but not too loosely either. Herbalist Susun Weed describes it as a “fairy mattress,” which I really like. Not so loose that she will fall through, but not so tight that she can’t sleep (or the menstruum can’t seep in). Then fill the jar to the top with your menstruum: Vinegar if you’re making a vinegar, or alcohol of at least 80 proof if your making a tincture. You can use any type of eating vinegar (not the super-strong cleaning stuff), but I’ve heard that apple cider vinegar with the “mother” (the stuff that settles on the bottom) may spoil. I haven’t experienced this, but something to not. Tightly lid the jar. If you are making a vinegar, make sure to put some parchment paper or other non-corrosive material between the liquid and the lid, as vinegar will corrode the metal in the lid and get rust all in your vinegar, which is a huge bummer, trust me. Put your jar in a cool, dark place (traditionally), give it a good shake whenever you think about it, and after 6 weeks it’ll be ready to use!
Note 1: there are non-alcoholic tinctures that use glycerin as a menstruum. I haven’t figured out how to do that, and given the minute amounts of alcohol in a dose of tincture, I personally don’t have the drive to use anything else, simply because of cost and ease.
Note 2: I use 80 proof vodka, because 1) it’s cheap, 2) I can’t find 100 proof locally. Sometimes I use everclear, but only if I want something really potent, am using dry roots or mushrooms, or will be doing a double process tincture.
Dandelion coffee has no caffeine, nor does it particularly taste like coffee. That is just what it’s called. But I will say, it is quite delicious. As far as the medicinal qualities and liver support, I don’t know how much is retained once “processing” the root.
As I said earlier, I chop up the roots into 1/4 inch pieces and dry them thoroughly. Once dried, I put them in a single layer (ish) on cookie sheets or in a glass roasting pan, or anything that will hold them, and put them in a pre-heated 325 (ish) degree oven to roast until they are a nice chocolatey-brown color.
This isn’t something you want to walk away from, as they can burn. I try to stir them around a bit every so often to get a nice even roast. As they roast, they start to smell like fresh brownies, which is an added bonus…or not. There have been many occasions when the kids have gotten excited that mom was making brownies, only to be disappointed when I pulled these babies out of the oven!
Once they are done, let them cool completely before putting them in a container (I keep an old glass jar around for them) for use later.
To make the “coffee”
Put about a tablespoon of roasted dandelion root per 2 cups of water in a pot on the stove. Bring it up to just boiling, then turn it down to a simmer. Simmer for about 10-15 minutes, or until the water turns a nice golden brown.
Pour in a mug and enjoy!
You can add milk, cream, sugar, honey, agave, whatever, to your taste. Add cinnamon and nutmeg and make a chai. I will often mix it half and half with my morning coffee when I feel I don’t need that much caffeine, or when I’m feeling especially guilty about that particular addiction.
Enjoy the rich, warm, slightly sweetness of this wonderful drink….made from that “nuisance weed,” and reflect on what “weed” really means to you. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll learn to love the dandelion too!