By Audrey Stallsmith
Simple and fresh and fair from winter's close emerging
As if no artifice of fashion, business, politics had ever been,
Forth from its sunny nook of shelter'd grass--innocent, golden, calm as the dawn,
The spring's first dandelion shows its trustful face.
Walt Whitman, "Leaves of Grass"
G. K. Chesterton called it a "strange and staggering heresy" that humans deserve even the dandelion, that most common and cheerful of flowers. His point was that we have all been given much more than we could rightfully expect.
He might well have added that the dandelion itself is much more of a blessing than it appears to be. This "weed" which we gardeners so assiduously yank out of our vegetable plots is actually better for us than most of the vegetables!
"The hearbe which is commonly called Dandelion," Gerard wrote, "doth send forth from the root long leaves deeply cut and gashed in the edges. . .upon every stalk standeth a floure. . .double and thicke set together, of colour yellow. . .which is turned into a round downy blowball that is carried away with the wind. . ."
A "rustic oracle" in the Language of Flowers, the dandelion derives its name from a corruption of Dent de lion or "tooth of the lion." This refers to the jagged leaves rather than to the more mane-like flowers.
Taraxacum, the official name, comes from the Greek taraxos ("disorder") and akos ("remedy"). Ancient herbalists called the weed Herba Taraxacon or Herba Urinaria--the latter because the plant is a diuretic. The more direct common people simply called it Piss-a-bed! The Irish knew the plant as heart-fever-grass, since it also relieves heartburn.
Children have dubbed the dandelion "swine's snout," since the closed-up bloom resembles that shape, or "priest's crown" for the bald head which remains after the seeds have flown. They also knew it as "blowball" or "telltime," since the number of puffs necessary to dispatch all the seeds was supposed to indicate the time of day. According to tradition, every puff also sends good thoughts floating towards a loved one.
The dandelion has even more uses than names. The young leaves and crown can be eaten raw (in spring salads or bread and butter sandwiches) or steamed like spinach. My mother serves the cooked leaves with vinegar and chopped boiled egg.
The roots are also edible, prepared like parsnips, or roasted and ground to make a java-like beverage. We have also found the flowerheads delectable when dipped in batter and fried. Little old ladies once favored a sherry-like wine fermented from those blossoms. Working men of old preferred herb beers brewed from the greens of dandelion, nettle, and dock.
Finally, completing its reputation for abundance, this humble plant has treated just about every physical disorder on record. It stimulates the kidneys, relieves both constipation and diarrhea, cleanses the blood, improves circulation, whets the appetite, relieves indigestion, eases upper respiratory infections, and betters liver and gallbladder function.
The juice may cure warts in addition to bleaching liverspots and freckles. Dandelion is also high in insulin, protein, calcium, iron, riboflavin, niacin, and Vitamins A, B, and C.
It's no wonder that Culpeper couldn't resist adding a postscript to his description of the plant. "You see here what virtues this common herb hath, and that is the reason the French and Dutch so often eat them in the spring; and now if you look a little farther, you may plainly see without a pair of spectacles, that foreign physicians are not so selfish as ours are, but more communicative of the virtues of plants to people."
Dreaming of dandelions is supposed to be bad luck. But Matthiolus reports an old superstition that a person who rubs himself with the flower will be welcome everywhere. It is too bad that the dandelion itself is not always so welcome, because such a generous weed is, indeed, a gift of grace.
Taraxacum image is from Kohler's Medizinal-Pflanzen, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden.