Dandelions flowering in lawns are both welcomed by urbanites as a sign of spring and cursed by homeowners, who have helped to fuel the herbicide and lawn care industries through their desire to produce the umblemished “great American lawn.”
Dandelion leaves are highly nutritious and are a good source of vitamins and iron. Missourians from a wide range of ethnic heritages eat dandelion greens in a variety of preparations. For example, German-derived folk, including Amish and Mennonites, typically prepare a sweet-sour dressing with bacon grease and serve it warm over the greens to wilt them; this is often topped with chopped hard-cooked egg and crumbled bacon. Italian-derived people may dress dandelion green salads with lemon juice, olive oil, and salt. These are just a few examples.
Ozark hillfolk, and many other rural people, are eager to get outside in springtime and make up a nice fresh green salad of a variety of edible greens. After a winter of eating root vegetables and canned food, the fresh greens are especially delicious.
If you are wanting to harvest dandelion greens, take care to pick them from areas free of pesticide residues. Rinse well in water; some people do several rinsings and soakings. Some people reduce bitterness (and turn them into cooked greens) by boiling them in up to three separate changes of water. Younger plants are more tender and less bitter than older ones. Short, close-cropped lawn dandelions are tougher and more bitter than ones from fields where they have been “let go.” Some sources suggest picking dandelion greens in early spring, before the plant has flowered. Mixing dandelion greens into a salad with different kinds of sweeter greens helps offset the bitterness, too.
Dandelions are becoming popular as a field green among gourmets, as more Americans begin to appreciate bitterness in their foods. Dandelions are slowly expanding into a minor organic crop in parts of the northern United States. They are frequently sold in mesclun salad mixtures, which contain several fancy lettuce cultivars as well as leafy greens from various species of mustards, chicories, and goosefoots/pigweeds.
The flowering heads can be added to pancake batter. Remove the bitter green parts from the base of the flower heads. Break up the individual florets of the flower heads and stir them into the batter. Adding a bit of grated orange peel and orange juice to the batter makes these extra nice.
Another idea for the flowering heads is to dip them in batter and fry them to make fritters, sweet or savory.
The flowering heads (again, most people use just the yellow corollas from the flowering heads) are mixed with sugar and various flavorings, then allowed to ferment, to produce the sweet, clear-yellow alcoholic beverage known as dandelion wine. Many oldtime Missourians made this wine in their basements and enjoyed it as a “tonic” or sipped it as a cordial. See if there's a recipe passed down in your family.
Author Ray Bradbury’s nostalgic 1957 novel Dandelion Wine uses the compression of gallons of flowers into bottles of golden-sweet dandelion wine as a symbol. In the book, he poetically condenses the many simple joys of summer in a small Midwestern town into a series of loosely connected stories.
Dandelion roots occasionally have been used as a chicory (and coffee) substitute and are also a source of the sugar substitute inulin.
Old-time Ozarkers used dandelion roots as a “spring tonic,” usually roasting, grinding, and brewing it like coffee, or preparing it like tea. Sometimes it was mixed with sassafras, chicory, and similar tonic roots. The point of a spring tonic is a diuretic and laxative effect, which supposedly helps rid the body of toxins, strengthens the liver, and “thins the blood.”
Apparently, dandelions were first introduced to North America in the early 1600s. Seeds were brought on the Mayflower and dandelions were planted as a food crop. As dandelions spread across our continent, Native Americans were quick to realize their usefulness as food and medicine.
In Europe, where dandelion has an even deeper past, the plants were historically used as a laxative, diuretic, “blood cleanser,” and tonic.
The dandelion is the “poster child” of the many, many plants and animals that Europeans brought with them (for better or for worse, intentionally or by accident) in past centuries and introduced to nearly all parts of the world. In a very similar way, European thought and culture was also introduced to all corners of the globe. Just as people all over the world may not know if a plant they’ve seen all their lives is native or was introduced long ago, the same may be true of ideas and patterns of thinking that were disseminated during the age of exploration. If you’re interested in learning more about the biological, microbiological, historical, and cultural ramifications of European colonization, plenty has been written on the subject.