Monday, May 19, 2014

Meatless Monday: Before you Dis the Dandelion…

Yes, everyone is familiar with the ubiquitous Dandelion (Leontodum taraxacum), also known as lions-tooth, blow-ball, cankerwort, or pissabed. Its bright yellow flowers first appear in early spring, rising on a hollow, leafless stalk from a basal rosette of long, dark, deeply lobed green leaves that is firmly anchored in the ground by a sturdy taproot. The many seeds that make up its fruiting head —nicknamed the “puff-ball” — are carried by the wind (often given a head start by the breath of children), and they germinate readily, under almost any condition. 

Dandelions grow tenaciously, often where we think they do not belong. Americans spend a small fortune each year trying to eradicate them from their manicured lawns.

But are you aware that the Dandelion is actually native to Asia, where it grows on cliffs and in open woodlands — a colonizer of bare ground and food for wildlife?  Unlike many other non-native plants that have arrived in our country accidentally, this herbaceous perennial was brought over intentionally, by some of the earliest English settlers. According to Peter del Tredici, in his book Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast, dandelions were listed in the 1672 volume New-England’s Rarities.

Each part of the plant has one or more uses. Wine can be made by fermenting the flowers; the roots can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute; tea made from the fresh root has diuretic properties and has a long history of use in treating ailments of the liver, kidney, and urinary system. 

Research in the EU with the Russian Dandelion (Taraxacum kok-saghyz) indicates that it may be feasible to produce high quality natural rubber from the plant’s milky sap. 

Dandelion greens are a standard component of many bagged green salad mixes. They are high in vitamins A, B, C, and D, as well as minerals such as iron, potassium, and zinc. 

While these greens are indeed tasty and nutritious, I do recommend that you grow your own in soil that you know is lead-free, or that you buy them in the produce aisle or at the farmer’s market. The inherent risk of foraging wild urban plants is that you don’t know what’s in the soil, and you are clueless about what wildlife may have used them to mark some territory.

Have you ever noticed that a new dandelion almost always pops up just where you thought you had gotten rid of one? A dandelion can sprout from a tiny bit of tap root left behind when you yank one out of the ground. If you decide to rid your corner of the world from this plant, you will have your work cut out for you. Maybe you can learn to love it, or at least appreciate its positive qualities? The dandelion is not your common weed.

I often blog on food, food issues, or topics related to growing things on Monday in support of Meatless Monday, one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project, founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal health and the health of our planet.”

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