The Golden Weed – A Treasure Underfoot

by Susan Peterson Gateley

Dandelions – despised, disparaged and destroyed by those who love a perfect plush green lawn – persist. The all but indestructible plants are targeted today by lawn care companies, gardeners, landscapers and others who prize turf grass.
But in the olden days, before the industrial age, dandelions were valued as food, for medicinal use and for their beauty. Its leaves saved more than one early settler or isolated trading outpost attendant up north from a painful death by scurvy. Today, its flowers are still harvested by those who prize a glass of flower wine during the dark days of winter.

This ubiquitous weed, beloved of pollinator insects and children who don’t know any better, has a long and fascinating history in our region. Numerous lawn-care services and the Chateau Renaissance wine cellars of Hammondsport make a profit from it. I and others seek the dandelion out eagerly in early spring to supplement salad bowls with fresh greens after a long winter of iceberg lettuce imported from Arizona.

Meanwhile, my neighbor stalks his yard with a sprayer to douse each dandelion flower with an herbicide.

The danger of pesticides

My guess is that the dandelion flower’s fall from favor with my neighbor and many others is linked to the general increasing isolation of humans from the natural world. Most of us live in a man-made landscape of pavement, well-kept and close-clipped yards, and buildings. We desire security and do our best to reside in a predictable world. But all too soon, those dandelion flowers close up, the stems extend and elongate and then pop open a gray sphere of fluff. The spring breeze carries those countless weed seeds near and far to another lawn, leaving behind a small forest of unsightly stems to mar the close-cropped perfection of grass.

According to NASA, about 63,000 square miles of the United States now consist of lawns. It’s an amount that exceeds the area of any one irrigated crop in America.

The dandelion wasn’t always considered a weed. The hardy nutritious native of Eurasia has been a valued associate of humans for thousands of years. It has been a food plant, a medicinal herb, and a source of wine from America’s far north to its Deep South. It probably arrived here before the pilgrims did. Its secret for success in a world now totally dominated by humans is simple: it thrives in a recently disturbed environment, like a lawn.

Dandelions arrived in the Finger Lakes Region very soon after the first European explorers reached America’s shores. The dark green rosette of leaves that appears soon after the snow melts is rich in Vitamin C and A, as well as a good source of calcium, iron and zinc. Unlike many common weeds, the dandelion is a perennial. The long taproot that makes it such a persistently hardy plant where it isn’t wanted also contributes to its high nutritional value. Its roots reach deep into the soil to tap minerals that shallow-rooted annuals like spinach and lettuce would not be able to concentrate.

The French name pissienlit reflects the plant’s value as a diuretic for treating high blood pressure, while the root has long been used by herbalists to treat liver and gall bladder problems. Modern scientific research on the health benefits of the dandelion has been lacking, but some animal studies suggest it might fight inflammation and stabilize blood sugar. Some sources claim it also boosts the immune system function.

Dandelion Wine

Perhaps the ultimate test of patience in applying the culinary arts to the dandelion is the creation of a batch of dandelion wine. I’ve had “commercial” and homemade dandelion wine and it really is special with its pale color and faint hint of flower, citrus and honey. The wine I’ve had was quite dry and also fairly potent. Author Ray Bradbury, in one of his classic novels about Green Town, wrote that dandelion wine “was summer caught and stoppered.”

After tasting a batch of home brew made by a friend, I got his recipe and ventured out the following spring to pick a large pot full of dandelions. This was not difficult, for I have long loved the cheerful flowers and my yard was full of them. One early summer day I ventured forth with my two-gallon pail and picked dandelions while the robins sang and the warm breezes ruffled the leaves of the nearby lilac bushes.

I followed the directions and created a mash of sorts from my bucket of flowers with a bit of citrus and sugar, and set it in a warm place. It certainly did ferment, and it certainly was alcoholic. However, it was also a pretty awful/not-up-to-the-standard my friend, an experienced home-brew hobbyist, had achieved. I think perhaps using the appropriate yeast is fairly critical. Don’t expect great results from bread yeast. And getting all the green “backing” off the flowers does matter. This wine also takes quite a long time to age in the bottle – six months or more says the Internet – so patience is essential.
The Chateau Renaissance winery near Hammondsport knows how to make dandelion wine. They sell it along with a variety of other wines at their on-site store at 7494 Fish Hatchery Road just south of the village.

But you don’t have to drink a glass of wine to appreciate the hardy, helpful dandelion, friend of pollinators, children and lovers of beauty. It is a golden gift from nature.

Edible and Yummy!

If you want to add dandelions to your diet there are a number of ways to do so. The flowers, leaves and root are all edible. I have never attempted to make tea or coffee from dried dandelion root, but the leaves are a regular at my dinner table in the spring, both as salad and cooked. Older greens become bitter, so as soon as you see the flower bud, you will want to use them sparingly or not at all in salad. Bringing older greens to a boil, then pouring off the water and adding new water to cook them, removes some of the bitter flavor.

When the flowers form it’s time for a mess of dandelion fritters. Here’s the really tough part of preparation. On a sweet warm May afternoon, sally forth to your spring world, sit down in the sun and start picking dandelion flowers. Pinch them off the stem and try not to include the green backing or any of the milky stem.

Take your mess of flowers in, whip up a basic batter of egg, flour and milk. Dip the flowers in the batter, fry ’em up and serve with maple syrup. At least one website claims dandelions in the diet can raise your beneficial HDL, but to be on the safe side, I use olive oil for my fritter frying – there’s a hint of sweetness and of pollen in the bite-size morsels. You have to pick them just before fritter time as they close up quickly when stored in the fridge.

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