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The Dandelion: Ruthless Invader or Superfood?

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The Dandelion: Ruthless Invader or Superfood?

DandelionsFor most home gardeners, the dandelion is one of the most frustrating perennial weeds out there. If not the most frustrating, certainly the most ubiquitous. And there’s really no fighting it. The slightest breath of wind can send hundreds of tiny seeds floating several miles from a single flower on feathery parachutes. Try to dig up a taproot that reaches 10-15 feet into the ground, and you’ll likely end up leaving a few fragments in the ground, further propagating the determined thing. The crown can generate new plants quickly even when the plant is cut off at or below the soil surface.

So maybe we should stop fighting it so hard. Humans, after all, only began to consider the dandelion a weed around the turn of the twentieth century. Before that, it was mostly thought to be a miracle plant, first brought to America purposefully by colonists for its breadth of health benefits, with the amazing ability to flush the digestive tract while simultaneously providing a powerful dose of many hard-to-find vitamins and micronutrients (rare, at least, before the days of multivitamins and imported food).

The dandelion now exists in a strange vestigial symbiosis with us, thriving at the periphery of human environments – roadsides, construction sites, parking lots, lawns, cultivated land, any sunny patch of disturbed ground where the way has been momentarily cleared for this innocent-looking, opportunistic little blossom. The more we up the ante, the more defenses and hardiness it evolves – a characteristic of many weeds.

It’s part of what makes them weeds, and not pampered domesticated plants.

Homeowners use up to ten times more chemical pesticides on their lawns, per acre, than farmers. That’s a lot of effort and groundwater pollution spent attacking weeds for the sake of a monocultured lawn. If we let dandelions do their thing in our yard, they’d loosen and aerate the soil with their thick, deep taproots, scavenging nutrients from the deep – far below the root zone of most other plants. Dandelion carcasses then make these nutrients available to everything growing around them as they decay.

Since leaves cover the surrounding soil and impede water percolation, the plant is designed so that leaves funnel water directly to the root – the epitome of water thrift.
Of course, they can quickly get overzealous and choke out the tender ornamentals and vegetables we try to grow. The best way to eradicate them, in situations where they really must go, is to smother them with sheet mulching or a layer of newspaper beneath organic mulch. That, or a good dousing of boiling water.

Try eating the tender leaves when they first come up in the spring, before they produce flowers and become extremely bitter. A frost, too, can rob the greens of their protective bitterness. The leaves always have a slight bitter tinge, accompanied by an intense heartiness. According to “Wildman” Steve Brill, who has been leading foraging tours of New York City’s parks for over 20 years, humans used to be much more sensitive to the bitterness in wild greens. Before our palates were corrupted by processed foods, we were better at distinguishing between (and appreciating) the good bitterness of a highly nutritious, complex food and the bad bitterness of a potential toxin.

Former humans, and those now rediscovering the dandelion, made medicinal tea out of the root and leaves. The leaves are packed with vitamins, including beta-carotene, iron, calcium, potassium, and vitamins A, B-complex, C, and E. The white, milky sap in the leaf has been used to remove warts, moles, pimples, calluses, and sores, and to soothe bee stings and blisters.

A dandelion treatment is a good answer for a variety of conditions requiring mild diuretic treatment, especially since it replenishes the body with vital nutrients often lost through other diuretics, such as potassium. Flowers have antioxidant properties, and roots promote gastrointestinal health and are antiviral.

Like other medicines, herbal remedies like dandelions can have interactions and side effects. People with gallbladder problems or gallstones should ask a doctor before eating dandelions. It’s also not advisable to mix dandelion use with lithium, antibiotics, or antacids, since it generally reduces their effectiveness and/or exacerbates their side effects.

The greens are also a great (and free, and nutritious) addition to soups, salads, and stirfries. They are good sautéed with onions and garlic in olive oil, with some wine or beer added and reduced. The bitterness can also be offset by cooking them with sweet root vegetables, such as carrots and parsnips. The taproot, though edible all year, is best from late fall through early spring, and its bitterness can be mellowed by a long, slow simmering.

Just be careful where you find the dandelions, however. For example, don’t harvest those next to your house if the house has been treated with termite control – the stuff is good for about 25 years, so it must be pretty persistent and available in the soil.

Dandelion Green and Shitake Calzones (from www.foodandwine.com)

  1. 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing
  2. 1/4 pound shiitake mushrooms, stems discarded, caps sliced 3/8- inch thick
  3. 2 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  4. 1 pound young dandelion greens, stems removed
  5. 2 tablespoons water
  6. Salt and freshly ground pepper
  7. 1 pound store-bought pizza dough, divided in half
  8. 1/2 pound shredded imported Fontina cheese
  9. 2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  1. Set a 16-by-14-inch pizza stone or baking tiles on the bottom shelf of the oven and preheat to 500° for at least 30 minutes. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil. Add the shiitakes and cook over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally, until beginning to brown, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring often, until lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Transfer the mushrooms and garlic to a plate.
  2. In the same skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of oil. Add the dandelion greens and 1 tablespoon of the water and cook, stirring, until wilted, about 4 minutes. Return the mushrooms and garlic to the skillet, add the remaining 1 tablespoon of water and cook until the liquid is absorbed and the greens are al dente. Season with salt and pepper and transfer to a plate.
  3. On a lightly floured surface, roll or stretch the dough to form two 10-inch rounds. Assemble 1 calzone at a time: transfer 1 dough round to a well-floured rimless cookie sheet. Sprinkle one-quarter of the Fontina on half of the dough, leaving a 1-inch border. Top with half of the dandelion mixture and another quarter of the Fontina. Fold the dough over to enclose the filling and press the edges together; crimp to seal. Using a toothpick, poke a hole in the top. Brush the calzone with olive oil and sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of the Parmesan. Repeat with the remaining ingredients on a second rimless cookie sheet.
  4. Jiggle the cookie sheets to release the calzones and slide them onto the pizza stone. Bake for about 11 minutes, or until the calzones are crisp and the filling is bubbling through the holes. Transfer to a rack. Cut them in half and serve hot

The dandelion mixture can be cooked up to 1 day ahead and refrigerated.

–Genevieve Slocum is a Contributor to The Free George.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our new City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

Short URL: http://thefreegeorge.com/thefreegeorge/?p=11957

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