Dandelions: nuisance or nature’s nutritious gem?

dandelionsBy Jess Scott Wright, RDN

In my experience, spring is the best antidote for the wet, winter blues, and it’s here! Walk outside and you can see, smell and hear nature rejoicing. Unfortunately, not everything that reemerges with spring is welcomed with open arms – mosquitoes, garden pests, blackberry vines and weeds can undermine the stress-busting properties of gardening and landscaping.

Springtime encourages outdoor activities such as gardening, which many research studies have found to reduce stress and promote positive mental health. The American Horticulture Therapy Association promotes an entire handbook dedicated to the powerful effects of gardening called “The Benefits of Gardening and Food Growing for Health and Well-Being,” which is available for free online via Google Scholar and is full of scientific information in support of this notion.

Depending on your definition of what constitutes a weed, the art of weed pulling may extend health benefits far beyond our mental wellbeing. Take dandelions for example:

Dandelions may look like weeds and their stubborn root might be really challenging to dig out of the ground, but they are truly healing gifts from nature. Not only are they easily identifiable, the dandelion is totally edible from root to flower, and it has a delicious versatility in the culinary world.

Just like spinach or kale, dandelion greens are tasty additions to soups or salads. Young greens have the best flavor for eating raw, or lightly sautéed in olive oil and sprinkled with salt and pepper, but for more mature greens, you may want to tame the potentially acrid taste by blanching them for 20 to 30 seconds in boiling water and shocking them in an ice bath to stop the cooking process. Store dandelion greens in containers/storage drawers that control moisture.

Dandelion greens are vitamin A and K powerhouses. In fact, just one cup provides more than 500 percent of the daily value for Vitamin K according to nutritiondata.self.com, so those taking anticoagulants like warfarin or Coumadin may want to talk to their healthcare provider before causing major shifts in their normal vitamin K intake with dandelion greens.

Dr. Siyaram Pandey, a biochemist at the University of Windsor in Ontario has been studying the effects of dandelion root extract on cancer. Thanks to his published findings and overwhelming support, Dr. Pandey acquired approval to study the possible cancer-fighting effects of dandelion extract, making it the first natural extract to receive approval for a clinical human cancer trial in Canada from Health Canada, the federal department responsible for governing medicine and healthcare in Canada.

In a TEDx talk about his research, Dr. Pandey said, “We dug out the dandelion root and just ground it in a home blender with water, made the extract, filtered it, tried to put it in the same Petri dishes where we grow the leukemia cells, and frankly speaking I was not expecting any activity because it was so diluted.” To his surprise, cancer cells started dying while healthy cells remained unharmed.

For centuries dandelion has been regarded for its potent healing and medicinal properties. As sources of calcium, antioxidants such as vitamin C and many minerals such as zinc, magnesium, potassium and phosphorus, dandelion leaves have traditionally been dried and made into teas and tinctures that are said to improve inflammation, promote healthy function for the liver, kidney and gallbladder and resolve symptoms associated with diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure.

Lately, I’ve been rendered breathless by the beauty of the exploding cherry blossoms. The colorful tulips sneakily emerge like flecks of joyous laughter through the landscapes and of course there are dandelions, which I assume are received with mixed emotions as they bring a scattered, chaotic, and persistent interruption to any hopes of having a flawless lawn like the one down the street so green that my husband stares enviously when he passes. I remind him that our grass, with all its patches and varietals, has character. This year I am going to embrace the dandelions, because when the next dreary, gray, wet winter arrives, I will miss them. But for now, I will eat them.

Please keep in mind that while eating dandelions is completely safe, when it comes to foraging, you must be certain that what you think you are eating is precisely that. Avoid wild dandelions along roadsides or in other areas subject to pollution or heavy pesticide use.

Many wild weeds are poisonous and easily mistaken by foragers as a safe edible plant. If you ever have an inkling of doubt, take a sample of your plant to a professional and have them confirm whether it is safe to eat or not. The Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board has helpful information in identifying poisonous weeds and how to handle them.

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