Around the world, dandelions are held in high esteem both for culinary and medicinal use. Americans stand out singularly in their distaste and ill will toward them. Even so, about one in four American cookbooks contain recipes for dandelions!
No one really knows where dandelions originated. Maybe it was in Greece or maybe in the Northern Himalayas, where there are still 75 or more different species. Wherever they originated, most likely they came to the Americas with the Mayflower and then again and again over the years in ships carrying immigrants. After arriving, dandelions spread over the continent quicker than the colonists. After long colonial and pioneer winters, they were a blessing and a treasure to all.
Today some families and communities still exalt the dandelion with annual feasts. Perhaps we should join the parade because dandelions still pack a wallop of foods values that we’re needing after a long winter of imported fare. According to the U.S.D.A. Bulletin No. 8, “Composition of Foods”, dandelions rank in the top four green vegetables in overall nutritional value.
So, how do you harvest your first dandelion? First, make sure that you know what you’re looking for; check a field guide, if in doubt. In early spring, before the flowers open, look for flat rosettes of the deeply toothed leaves (leaves of young plants will be reddish brown but will turn green when growth begins.) Find a safe place to pick, 25-50 feet from a busy street, away from power line right-of-ways, and far from chemically treated lawns.
Very early in spring, before the leaves have begun to grow, you can harvest mild-tasting roots; use a sturdy trowel or a spading fork to dig them; trim, scrub, slice and sauté or stir-fry them. A little later in spring, before the blossoms open, forage for greens or greens and roots together.
All you’ll need to harvest greens is a little knife and a bag. Harvest the greens by cutting the leaves off at the crown, where the leaf rosette meets the top of the taproot. Wash the leaves under running water, spreading them apart to loosen dirt and the tiny earth worms and critters that take shelter in the heart.
The little round flower buds are also edible and of delicate flavor, rich in protein and vitamin A. Use the greens and buds in salads, soups, sautéed or steamed; simply garnish with a little olive oil or butter, and lemon juice or vinegar. They nicely round out “peasant” meals with potatoes, beans, eggs or whole grains.
When the flowers open, this is a signal to leave the dandelion alone so it can do its work of reproduction. This is done without the need for pollination; through a process called “apomixis”, special cells in the ovule produce embryos identical to those of the parent plant. These seed clones and their parachutes form the “fairy puffs” we see after the flower matures. After the seeds have blown away and the flower stems have shriveled, you’ll notice new growth beginning again at the center of the leaf rosette. These are tender and delicious and can be harvested through the rest of the growing season.