Until I learned about the dandelion's curative properties, I saw the weed as an annoyance, one that signaled to neighbors and passersby that I was an inattentive homeowner and yard keeper. In fact, living out in the country like I do, it might even be illegal -- harboring invasive weeds is actually against the law in my neck of the woods. Rather than seeing dandelions as a threat to the public good, I now realize we should be gleaning the nutritious little plants; even saving seeds and starting them in the greenhouse.
Dandelion has been used as a folk cure for so many years we can't be sure when or where people first recognized its benefits. In ancient Crete, Theseus ate dandelions for a month before taking on the Minotaur. Chinese herbalists used dandelion in the 6th century, Arab physicians by the 11th century, and it was a common curative in Wales in the 1200s.
Dandelion is not native to North America; it was brought here by colonists and scattered to the winds in no time. It spread quickly, growing in nearly every climatic zone on the continent. Native Americans quickly adopted it as a tonic and medication.
Dandelions are unusual because they grow nearly everywhere, and the entire plant is useful: flowers, sap from the stem, leaves and the roots. Nothing need be wasted, and the parts can be harvested at different times of year: leaves in April, blossoms in May and roots in the fall.
The plant's scientific name is Taraxacum officinale, which means "official remedy for disorders," and it's been used for a variety of health problems. Some old-time uses include dabbing the juice from the stalk on freckles to make them disappear or to get rid of warts, moles, pimples and sores. Leaves were eaten as a blood purifier or tonic, as a diuretic and to aid digestion. The root was used to treat rheumatism, liver problems and as a laxative. It was an all-purpose plant that gave relief to a variety of uncomfortable problems, with few dangerous side effects.
Today we recognize the plant is loaded with nutrients. Dandelion greens, plucked in April when the plant is young and tender, are a good source of lutein, vitamin C, calcium, iron, potassium, silicon, boron, magnesium, zinc, beta-carotene and many others. Greens were eaten in the spring when the body was low after a winter of dried or salted foods -- with large amounts of vitamin A and iron, no wonder people felt invigorated.
Dandelion blossoms contain vitamins A, B, C and D. It's one of the few food sources of vitamin D. The blossoms have been used for making cough syrup, jelly, wine and in salads.
The root, dug this time of year when it is largest, then dried and pulverized, has been claimed to help liver problems, alleviate rheumatism and purify the blood. Nursing mothers drank tea made from dried dandelion roots to prevent colicky babies. Dandelion tea tastes like chicory -- one of its plant relatives -- and can be ground up to make a nutrient-rich caffeine-free coffee substitute.
While dandelion has been used for centuries as a tonic and cure, little research has been done. Research has been on lab animals, where it has shown anti-inflammatory and diuretic activity. Chinese researchers discovered it is a bactericide against diphtheria, tuberculosis, pneumonia and even some staph bacteria. Research is expensive, and when a plant is so widespread and easy to obtain, there isn't much profit for pharmaceutical companies in promoting dandelions. But the humble dandelion maybe coming into its own as an agricultural product. Dandelions are already a $10 million-per-year industry, much of them greenhouse-grown.
If you can't buy fresh dandelion greens at a grocery, gather them in areas that haven't been treated with insecticide or herbicide. Don't collect along roadways or railroad sidings, as dandelion plants absorb pollutants.
Even dandelions have their support group. A group in Cleveland calling itself the Defenders of Dandelions, reminds us that "Dandelions are NOT weeds, they are wild vegetables." And, what other vegetable can tell your fortune? Tradition holds that when you blow on a dandelion seed pod, the number of seeds remaining predict how many children you will have or the number of years you have left to live.
Laurie Carlson, Ph.D., writes about history and health from her home near Cheney. Her book, A Fever in Salem, explains Colonial witchcraft as a reaction to an encephalitis epidemic. For more information, visit her Website at www.lauriecarlson.com. If you have a family remedy or folk cure to share, write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.