“You EAT them?” a little boy new to the neighborhood asks. He leans forward for the answer, his face ready to constrict in doubt.
Children already well acquainted with our family’s springtime ritual stop picking.
“Yeah!” they eagerly assure him, “They’re really good.”
They aren’t referring to a new vegetable in our garden. They’re talking about dandelions.
Herbalists tell us exactly what we need grows nearby. Those plants we call “weeds” may in fact remedy what ails us. They are so common that their properties are easily overlooked in a culture searching for packaged wellness. Plantain, mullein, comfrey,mint, mugwort,St. John’s wort, chicory, and purslane spring up wild in our untreated lawn and gardens. Weeds, but also powerful healers.
Today we’re picking dandelions in full flower. It isn’t about finding a remedy. For me the harvest is has to do with celebrating spring and affirming the beauty around us. For my children and our neighbors it’s about fun. I wait until the blooms are at their peak. Then I call friends and neighbors to announce, “Today is the day!”
Children spread out across the yard holding little baskets. A girl squats in front of each plant, pausing a long moment before she reaches out to pluck a flower from its stem. The oldest boy in the group walks by many dandelion plants to pick only those growing in clusters. And the newest little boy falls silent, as the rest of the children do, taking delight in the seriousness of the harvest.
European settlers brought the dandelion plant to this continent for food and medicinal purposes. The perennial spread easily across most states. It’s a testament to the power of herbicide marketers that such a useful plant became so thoroughly despised. Standing under today’s blue sky, I look at exuberant yellow rosettes growing in bright green grass and feel sheer aesthetic pleasure.
After the children tire of picking we sit together on the porch and snip off the dandelion stems right up to the flower. We mothers look over their busy heads—blonde, brown, black—and smile as we watch them stay at this task with the kind of close attention children give to real work. One girl remarks that the flowers look like the sun. Another child says her grandmother told her that in the Old Country they call the plant by the same name as milk because of its white sap. The newest boy chooses to line the stems neatly along the wide porch planking, arranging and rearranging them by length.
Every aspect of a ritual holds significance so I pay attention to the warm breeze, the comfortable pulse of friendship, and flowers so soft against my fingers they remind me of a newborn’s hair.
When we’re done the flowers are rinsed in a colander, then it’s time to cook them. I’m not a fan of frying. There are better ways to preserve the flavor and nutrients in food. Consequently I’m not very skilled. But this is easy. The children, their mothers and I drop the flowers in a thin batter, scoop them out with slotted spoons and fry them a dozen at a time in shallow pans.
After the blossoms cool slightly on paper towels they’re put on two platters. One is tossed with powdered sugar and cinnamon, the other sprinkled with salt and pepper. Handfuls are eaten in the kitchen while we cook. Then we carry the platters outside. Children run off to play in grass polka-dotted with bright yellow flowers. We adults sit on the porch laughing and talking.
It’s suggested that we should be eating healthfully prepared dandelion greens and roots rather than indulging in delectable fried blossoms. That sentence fades into a quiet moment as a breeze stirs new leaves on the trees and lifts our children’s hair. I feel enlivened. Everywhere, around me and inside me, it is spring.
Flower Power Recipe
Gather dandelion flowers from areas free of chemical treatments or fertilizer. Pick in a sunny part of the day so the flowers are fully open, then prepare right away so flowers don’t close.
Cut away stem, as this is bitter, leaving only the green part holding the flower together.
Douse briefly in salt water (to flush out any lurking bugs). Dry flowers on dish towels while you prepare batter.
3 to 4 cups dandelion flowers, prepared as above
1 cup milk (dairy, soy, almond, coconut, any variety)
1 egg (or equivalent egg replacer product)
1 cup flour (slightly smaller amount of any whole grain alternative)
½ teaspoon salt
oil (frying is best with healthful oils which don’t break down at high temperatures, try safflower oil, coconut oil or olive oil)
1. Combine milk, egg, flour and salt in wide bowl. Mix well. Heat a few inches of oil in skillet (350-375 degrees).
2. Drop a dozen or so blossoms into the batter, stir gently to coat. Lift out with slotted spoon or fork. It’s best to hold the bowl over the skillet as you drop each blossom into the hot oil.
3. Turn flowers over to brown on both sides. Remove with slotted spatula to drain briefly on towels. Continue to fry remaining flowers using same steps. Toss cooked dandelions with sugar and cinnamon. Or toss with salt and your choice of savory flavoring such as garlic, pepper, or chili powder.
4. Making flower fritters is a speedier method than frying individual flowers. Simply drop flowers and batter into the oil by the spoonful, then turn like a pancake. Serve with jam, maple syrup or honey. Or try savory toppings like mustard, ketchup or barbecue sauce. These fritters are endlessly adaptable. Try adding sunflower or sesame seeds to the batter and serve with either the sweet or savory toppings.
What You May Not Know About Dandelions
The common dandelion, Taraxacum officinal, has been used in traditional medical systems around the world to boost nutrition as well as treat conditions of the liver, kidney and spleen; slow abnormal growths; improve digestion and more. Recently science has taken a closer look at this often scorned plant. No surprise, traditional wisdom holds up under scrutiny.
~Dandelion root stimulates the growth of 14 strains of bifidobacteria. This is good news, because bifidobacteria aid in digestion. Their presence in the gut is correlated with a lower incidence of allergies.
~Dandelions appear to fight cancer. Researchers testing for biologically active components to combat cancer proliferation and invasion note that dandelion extracts have value as “novel anti-cancer agent[s].” Their studies show dandelion leaf extract decreases growth of certain breast cancer cells and blocks invasion of prostate cancer. The root extract blocks invasion of other specific breast cancer cells and also shows promise inhibiting skin cancer.
~Dandelions work as an anti-inflammatory and pain relieving agent.
~Dandelion extract lowers cholesterol. This, plus its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant qualities leads some researchers to believe that the plant may reduce the risk of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).
~The plant’s leaves are an effective diuretic.
~Dandelion shows promise in diabetic treatment. It slows the glycemic response to carbohydrates, thereby helping to control blood sugar.
~Dandelion extract increases the action of estrogen and progesterone receptors. It may prove to be a useful treatment for reproductive hormone-related problems including PMS.
~ Leaves, roots and flowers of the humble dandelion are fully edible. USDA National Nutrient Database analysis proves that a festive array of nutrition awaits any lawn harvester. One cup of chopped fresh dandelion greens are extremely rich in vitamins K, A and C as well as good source of vitamin E, thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B6, calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, fiber and omega-3 fatty acids.
~The flavonoids found in dandelions are valuable antioxidants and free radical scavengers.
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This article first appeared in Natural Life Magazine.