The Wheel of the Year has turned, and even though many people reading this may still have to deal with snow and ice a while longer, Spring time is inexorably unfolding. As we welcome the signs of Spring, one of the earliest visitors you may notice dotting the yards now are the first fuzzy yellow blooms of dandelions. Although they are the bane of those who would have a pristine lawn of grass, the dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, has an illustrious history and is a stalwart ally for health and well-being.
The dandelion originally came from Asia, where it played an important role in both food and medicine. We have records over a thousand years old of Arabian physicians who widely used this plant as a medicine.
Dandelions came to the New World with the French who settled in Canada in the 1700s, for its medical use in Europe by this time was well established. The Spanish also brought it to the American southwest as a medicine and food source, as did the German immigrants in Pennsylvania in the 1850’s. It was commonly used as an early spring tonic. The English, too, used it as an important cure for liver diseases and blood illnesses. Native Americans quickly adopted the dandelion, using it for healing and health as well. Today, the plant is cultivated extensively in India as a remedy for liver problems and in Russia, it is grown and exported for its medicinal value. Each year fifty-five tons of coffee substitutes made from roasted dandelion roots are sold in England, Australia and Canada. And dandelion wine, made from its flowers, is an old country favorite.
The word dandelion comes from the French “dents de lion.” This means “teeth of the lion,” referring to the jagged edges of the its leaves. The other French name for this plant is pis-en-lit. In English this means wet the bed. Dandelions deserve this name because their greens are a powerful diuretic, so eating them before bedtime is not recommended!
Now is the ideal time to harvest dandelion leaves, which, in early Spring are full of potassium and other trace minerals that are especially good as a toner for the liver, nourishing, and strengthening it, and empowering its activity as the primary blood-cleansing organ in the body. The smallest, young leaves in Spring are less bitter than they’ll be later in the year, adding their healthful zip to your salads and greens.
For centuries, our wise grandmothers knew how to make tonics from dandelion leaf, in order to invigorate and strengthen all the body’s systems. Dandelion leaf is one of the richest natural sources of beta-carotene, and contains more iron and calcium than spinach. It is used to help purify the body after a long winter of rich foods and little exercise. And the bitter taste of the leaves is believed to stimulate bile flow, which enhances liver function.
And of course, if these were not enough reasons love the dandelion, don’t forget that later, when the flowers go to seed, the dandelion offers us magical wishes and entices the Fair People of our gardens to come out and play.