My mother dosed her family with generous amounts of dandelion greens as soon as she discovered their bright leaves poking up through the thatch of the back lawn.
One of nine children growing up during the Depression on a Vermont dairy farm, Mom regaled us with many stories of the wild-food foraging that supplemented the self-reliant family diet. Dandelions, the first fresh greens of spring, ranked high on her list of important foraged foods.
I inherited my mother’s dandelion fork, a simple wooden-handled tool with a steel shaft and a short, sharp fork at one end. Though sadly I misplaced the fork and bought a new one (much inferior), I continue her tradition.
Native to Eurasia, this humble member of the aster family (Taraxacum officinale) has traveled far and wide. Cultures around the world have used every part of the dandelion as both nutritious food and powerful medicine.
One of the plant’s common nicknames in French—pissenlit (pee-the-bed)—attests to dandelion’s use in traditional healing cultures as a valuable diuretic agent (rich in potassium).
The trick to enjoying dandelion greens? Harvest them young with their underground crowns attached and clean them well. Choose a spot that hasn’t been sprayed or fertilized with agricultural chemicals or frequented by pets.
Harvest the spiky greens and their pale belowground crowns (which taste like artichoke hearts) as soon as you detect the tiny spiked leaves poking forth. Harvest the greens until the blossoms open (the unopened buds are yummy), after which the leaves become too bitter for most palates.
Angle your “weeding fork” down about an inch into the soil below the rosette of 3- to 6-inch greens, and sever the crown where it joins the root. Then pull the entire rosette from the ground. Shake it free of dirt and remove as many of last year’s slimy leaves as possible.
Pay rigorous attention to cleaning the grit and debris from inside the tightly formed crown. Swish the greens around in a deep pan through several changes of water. Then cut open the crowns without severing the leaves and scrape debris from each rosette before submerging the greens for a final rinse.
Cooking with Dandelions
Although I add the tiniest dandelion greens to fresh salads, I like them best cooked with a couple of onions. I sauté chopped onions (and maybe a little garlic) in a bit of olive oil until they become translucent, then add the greens with a little rinse water clinging to them and steam until the greens are soft.
I also add dandelions to a spring-tonic soup that could include young nettles, parsley, spinach, kale, and chard cooked in well-seasoned chicken broth.
Also, a strong tea of dandelion blossoms used as a hair rinse adds shine and highlights to blond hair.
In the Garden
The deep perennial taproots forage minerals and make them available for shallower-rooted crops. (Don’t let too many get started, though, and pull the blossoms off in the vegetable garden.)
In a lawn or field, the bright yellow flowers attract pollinators to the spring garden and provide an important early nectar source for many butterflies.
NOTE: Make sure that you can identify dandelions with certainty before you harvest them. If you’ve never eaten dandelions, prepare and eat a small amount before you begin harvesting in earnest. Never harvest dandelions from areas that have been treated with pesticides or other chemicals, such as a lawn.