Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Dandy Dandelions

You have a choice. You can be a horticultural fascist, using toxic chemicals to botanically "cleanse" your yard of the lowly dandelion, or you can sink on your knees and thank the universe for this free and abundant harvest of nutritious food and medicine. You can go a step further and plant a crop. And think of the fun you'll have when you calmly announce to your neighbor that you're about to do just that.

Bury a dandelion in the northwest corner of your house and favorable winds will blow your way. Send a message to a distant loved one by blowing the seed head in his or her direction while visualizing the message. If you succeed in dispersing all the seeds at one blow, your message will be received. The root, when dried and roasted, makes a nutritious coffee substitute. This same beverage placed steaming beside your bed will summon the spirit world.

The word "dandelion" derives from the French dent-de-lion, or "lion's tooth" after the plant's serrated leaves. The French themselves call dandelion pissenlit, or "pee-in-bed", a reference to the diuretic properties of the herb. The botanical name, Taraxacum officinale, evolved via the Arabic tarakhshaqun from the Persian talkh chakok, meaning "bitter herb" or from the Persian, tark hashgun, or wild endive. Another theory derives the name from the Greek taraxos, meaning disorder and akos, meaning remedy.

The genus Taraxacum is native to the northern temperate and arctic zones and includes over 60 species of perennial or biennial herbs, all members of the aster family.

There is an engaging legend about the origin of the dandelion. Centuries ago, a miser found a pot of gold. He decided to bury it where no one else would find it. He took the gold home, placed it in a sack and went to bed. During the night a mouse gnawed a hole in the sack. The next morning the miser took the sack into the woods to bury it. He was unaware of the hole in the sack and the gold dropped out, coin by coin. When the miser realized this he retraced his steps, intending to pick up the gold coins. However, he found that the coins had been turned into beautiful yellow flowers and were rooted to the ground. The wood sprites had overheard his plan to bury the gold and to punish him for his selfishness they had turned the gold into dandelions for everyone to enjoy and share.

Dandelion leaves are more nutritious than spinach. James A. Duke, Ph.D., herbalist and botanist, has built a phytochemical database for the U.S. Agricultural Research Service. For the humble dandelion he lists the following compounds:

Sesquiterpene lactones, which stimulate digestion and relax the sympathetic nervous system; Triterpenes, which include phytosterols called stigmasterol and sitosterol. These compounds may inhibit the growth of tumors and help regulate blood lipids. Others are associated with the regulation of thyroid function; Polysaccharides, especially inulin, a polymer of fructose. Inulin helps stabilize blood sugar levels in hypoglycemia. It also has diuretic and immuno-stimulant properties.

Lecithin, which protects the liver; Phenolic acids, which are anti-inflammatory; Carotenoids such as lutein and violaxanthin, which are powerful antioxidants. Lutein in particular has been identified as a preserver and enhancer of good vision and may prevent macular degeneration; Coumarins, which enrich the blood; Vitamins A, B, C, and D and the minerals calcium, chromium (helps metabolize fat and reduces cholesterol and triglycerides), copper, iron, magnesium, potassium, selenium, sulfur and zinc.

In addition to its nutritional qualities, the dandelion leaf is a powerful diuretic and is used as a cleanser and to treat high blood pressure by reducing the volume of excess body fluids. Unlike pharmaceutical diuretics, which cause a loss of potassium, dandelion leaves contain high amounts of this important mineral and provide a net gain. The leaf is best harvested in spring or early summer and preferably before flowering. Later in the year the leaves become tough and bitter. Even young the leaves are bitter and some recommend blanching or soaking overnight in cold water to reduce the astringency. Cooked or served raw in salads, it is advisable to combine dandelion with other greens. Do not cut or tear dandelion leaves until you're ready to use them. When cut, the cells are damaged, releasing an ascorbic acid oxidase. This chemical destroys the herb's vitamin C.

Herbalists endorse dandelion root as one of the most effective detoxifying herbs. It works primarily on the liver and gall bladder to remove waste and toxins. German research, published in 1959, validated dandelion root as an effective liver cleanser and bile stimulator. Because of these qualities, the root has helped clear up many eczema-like skin problems. The roots are best harvested in the fall when the nutritional compounds are returning to the root. For example, autumn-harvested roots contain about 40% inulin compared to only 2% in spring-harvested roots. However, frost will diminish dandelion's nutritional content. Dandelion leaf and root are sanctioned by herbalists for the prevention of gallstones and may even help to dissolve already formed gallstones. The fresh latex from dandelion stems has also been used to banish warts if applied several times daily.

Dandelion flowers make a clear, rich, sherry-like herbal wine. The flowers can also be used as a nutritional garnish - when young they have a sweet, honey-like flavor - and to impart a beautiful yellow hue to herbal vinegars.

Only harvest dandelion leaves or roots well away from traffic and industrial areas and where you know they haven't been sprayed. Following are two recipes for dandelion: one culinary and one medicinal.

Dandelion Fritters

7 cups of fresh, young dandelion leaves, washed, lightly steamed and chopped;
2 cloves of garlic, minced;
1 small onion, finely chopped;
2 eggs, beaten;
2 tsp. extra virgin olive oil;
Salt and pepper to taste;
Oat flour, enough to bind the mixture into patties.

Combine all the ingredients in a bowl, mix well and form into patties. Fry in the oil until golden brown.

Diuretic Tea

2 tsp. fresh, washed dandelion root, finely chopped; ½ tsp. each of nettle leaf (fresh or dried), oat straw, fennel seed and corn silk; 1 liter of boiling water.

Pour boiling water over the herbs. Steep in a pot for 20 minutes. Strain the herbs and drink one or two cups as needed.

Bruce Burnett is an award-winning writer, a chartered herbalist and author of HerbWise: growing cooking wellbeing. Bruce and his wife Delaine own Olivia’s Fashion, Furnishings & Gifts ([http://www.olivias.ca/]) in Ladysmith, BC Canada. Read more published articles by Bruce Burnett on his websites: [http://www.bruceburnett.ca/] and http://www.herbalcuisine.com/

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