...make dandelion and burdoch! If you love your lawn, you probably hate dandelion, writes Sue McGarrigle. But these common weeds are bursting with potential, in both culinary and medicinal terms.

This article has been adapted from the original, which was published in the Summer 2016 issue of the Optimum Nutrition magazine.

With their leaves close to the ground and a tap root that goes deep into the soil, dandelions are hard to get rid of — especially once the petals have gone and the fluffy clocks have sailed in the wind to disperse their seeds.

Yet our ancestors may have welcomed them in the garden, because these cheerful-looking plants have a long history of use by humans, with petals, leaves and root all being used in many traditional and modern herbal medical systems.

Dandelion etymology and history

The English name dandelion comes from the French dent de Lion or lion’s tooth, because their jagged leaves were thought to resemble the canine teeth of a lion.

Its name in modern French, pissenlit, reflects its diuretic nature with a literal translation being ‘to urinate in bed’. Perhaps more dignified, the Latin name, Taraxacum, means ‘disease remedy’.

As described in 1931 in Mrs M Grieve’s A Modern Herbal, dandelion was said to be good for supporting digestive and liver function, and to stimulate appetite.

Its roots and leaves – bitter digestive stimulants with diuretic properties – were said to have a tonic effect on the gastrointestinal tract, the liver, kidneys, spleen and gallbladder.

Today, much of our understanding of dandelion comes from such traditional use.

Dandelion use by herbalists

Among its most important constituents, the compounds in dandelion’s roots and in particular its leaves (which cause the bitter taste) are said to have the ability to naturally stimulate the production of bile from the liver and also stimulate the gallbladder to release bile, as well as supporting the liver’s functions and modulating inflammation.

Herbalists may recommend dandelion for people with sluggish liver function due to alcohol abuse or poor diet.

The theory behind this is that an increase in bile flow may also help improve fat metabolism in the body, reducing the effects of fatty foods (heartburn and acid indigestion).

But clinical trials are needed to determine whether the age-old beliefs can be supported.

What does the evidence say about dandelions?

As a possible anti-inflammatory or diuretic, there are limited animal studies to support the use of dandelion, but human clinical trials are needed. So, it cannot be said that relying on dandelions in place of conventional medical interventions will be of benefit.

However, the humble dandelion is showing potential elsewhere, with its cancer-fighting properties being investigated.

In 2015, scientists at the University of Windsor, Canada, were looking to recruit 30 patients to take part in a study, following research which showed that dandelion tea containing dandelion root extract killed cancer cells in the laboratory.

Delicious dandelion cuisine

While we tend to view them as weeds, dandelions are also a source of food, especially in France where they are added to salads.

The young leaves, especially when blanched, can be eaten alone or in combination with lettuce, chives and onions, or combined into smoothies.

Gourmet seeds or plants may be available, some of which are French cultivated varieties which are less bitter than others.

Dandelion flowers can be gathered in batches and frozen until ready to use either in salad, or combined with oranges and lemons to make a refreshing summer wine. Who doesn’t remember drinking dandelion and burdock?

Roasted dandelion root also has a long history of use as a coffee alternative, and is a popular choice for people who favour a caffeine-free version of coffee with other health benefits.

If you would like to try dandelions in a salad, pick the leaves when they are young and tender. Older leaves will have a more bitter taste — although some foragers prefer these.

Leaves can be blended with garlic, parmesan, pine nuts and other greens and an oil of your choice to make a delicious pesto, or with vegetable stock, herbs and seasonings for a soup.

Dandelion in the gut and bladder

Dandelion root, however, may have a laxative effect. The roots also have a distinct soothing action in the gastrointestinal and genitourinary tract, as well as prebiotic properties due to their content of inulin.

A type of fibre, inulin is present in high amounts in dandelion root and so, as a prebiotic, may help encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria.

Given its French name, it’s unsurprising that dandelion has been extensively used as a diuretic in traditional medicine, increasing urination and helping the kidney eliminate waste products.

Its mineral content may also help to lower blood pressure and mitigate some of the electrolyte imbalance resulting from pharmaceutical diuretic use.

A pilot study on humans has shown great promise for dandelion’s use as a diuretic, and the German Commission E (which lists approved uses for herbal medicines) also approves dandelion as a diuretic and for use in loss of appetite, dyspepsia and disturbances in bile flow.

And while diuretic products can have the unwanted side effect of flushing potassium from the body, the use of dandelion root tea may help compensate for some of this loss.

Potential for further discoveries

However, although dandelion’s potential is being explored by cancer researchers in Canada, China, and Japan, there has been little in-depth research to back up the plant’s long list of traditional properties, which include blood ‘cleansing’, cholesterol lowering, antioxidant and immune properties, as well as benefits to skin and other systemic disorders.

But with research — most of which has been in animals — showing its significant activity and nutritive and non-toxic profile, further research would be welcome.

Some important considerations

If you would like to keep a space for this wildflower, the usual constant garden battle makes it prudent to isolate and grow them in an uncontaminated, shady corner of the garden well away from lawns and chemicals — and picking the heads before they go to seed. Having a patch of them somewhere makes culinary sense.

When grown in a pot they need to be at least a foot deep to accommodate the root which contains an important milky, bitter latex.

Dandelion is not recommended as an alternative to conventional medicine, and if you wish to take it for a pre-existing condition you are advised to inform your GP.

Do not use dandelion while on lithium or anti-diabetic drugs, anti-depressant medication and quinolone antibiotics.

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