By Ilana Sobo
“What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have never been discovered.”
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Every spring I teach a class on healing plants at the local herb nursery here in Connecticut. We have a grand time touching, tasting, smelling and celebrating the hundreds of beautiful medicinal and edible plants from around the world that one can choose from at this very special place. As wonderful as each of those varieties of lavender and marjoram are, the most exciting part of the class is when we get to talk about the straggly weeds surrounding our circle. This is the moment when I get to share that if there is any one herb in the world that is truly a superhero, a must-have, it would have to be the very local, very abundant Dandelion (Taraxacum Officinale) growing in that crack over yonder. What a joy and honor to see the look on the students’ faces as they discover that this often vilified "weed" actually proves to be one of the greatest foods and medicines that can be found in nature while simultaneously also being one of the most helpful plants that can be used in holistic agriculture practices. In fact, the gifts of the Dandelion (Taraxacum Officinale) are so great, you might be surprised too!
Growing wild on all earth's continents, every part of the antioxidant rich dandelion is edible and nutritious. The leaves alone are high in Vitamins A, C, K, Calcium, Potassium, Iron, Zinc, Manganese, as well as a spectrum of B vitamins, which are very helpful for reducing stress. You can certainly eat the stems and flowers too. And those tiny magical seeds we blow across fields -- they are medicinal, having been studied for their beneficial affect on the liver and several reproductive system cancers.
As a digestive aid, dandelion is tremendous. In the spring I often ask my son to gather some young leaves or flower tops from the yard to add to our salads. Even just a few leaves of this bitter plant before or after meals will help activate digestive enzymes and juices in the body that break food down and assist us in having a well balanced and easily digested meal. And as the mama of a finicky eater, I relish in the ability to add a nutritious healing friend to our meals that the little guy has contributed to our table himself. I believe this is a very simple but tangible empowerment for children around wellness and discovering the healing gifts of nature.
Photo credit: Ilana Sobo
Now, the root of the dandelion is a wonder in and of itself. Perhaps one of the most fascinating gifts of dandelion root is its ability to quadruple the output of bile from the liver while also reducing inflammation. In a culture such as ours that consumes great amounts of meat and dairy, productive bile output from the liver is very important. Bile assists with the emulsification, digestion and absorption of fats while also rendering nutrients for assimilation. And dandelion root reduces the effects of fatty foods on the body in other ways by ameliorating troubles like indigestion and heartburn. But that’s not all. Dandelion root also helps detoxify the liver, cleanse the blood, and act as a diuretic that flushes toxins from the kidneys while simultaneously delivering vital trace minerals back to the body. Dandelion root is truly an amazing medicinal tonic that also continues to be studied for its anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic properties. It shows tremendous promise in helping combat a wide variety of degenerative diseases. You can easily take a tea of the leaves, the flowers, or the root. And there are many folks that roast the root which creates a wonderful drink that can replace coffee.
Here is a video by the most inspiring herbalist and plant teacher Cascade Anderson Geller, who explains to us how to identify and work with this amazing plant in many different ways. Positive id is always important when you harvest any plant from the wild and even the well known dandelion has some cousins who look similar.
And indeed, I could not finish this ode to the Dandelion without also talking about its value in the garden as well. The mighty Dent de Lion (French for Tooth of Lion- descriptive of the leaf of the Dandleion) holds an important place in our gardens and on our lawns. With a long tap root, a dandelion will aerate the soil and bring up vital minerals from deep below to increase the mineral content of the top soil and benefit the heath and nutritional profile of all the other plants that surround it. Plants that can do this are what is known as dynamic accumulators. Other wild “weeds” like chickweed, Lamb’s quarters, yarrow, plantain and more are dynamic accumulators as well. Dandelions are also able to phytoremediate toxins like heavy metals in disturbed soil and will break up compacted earth, helping the land to hold and store more water and provide better soil composition for root growth. Pretty amazing, huh? And of course, who could forget the bees. Dandelions are among the first forage for bees in the spring. This alone speaks to its tremendous value in nature.
I didn’t want to geek out too much in this article, but anyone who knows me will tell you that permaculture is my favorite topic to talk about besides herbs, weeds and wildflowers. I’m of the opinion that holistic land management practices like Permaculture are what will rapidly and efficiently restore our ecosystems while also providing abundant, healthy food for all. So here is another fun video from several permaculture pioneers talking about their love of dandelions and its incredible value in market agriculture and close to home.
The Dandelion is truly a wonder plant that I reckon is akin to a real life Superman, except it can’t fly.. or can it??? Inside of this tiny, shiny, sunny plant is such incredibly powerful healing gifts and deep nutrition. And despite being sprayed and pulled and hated and stomped on, it brings an almost unfathomable amount of healing for us and our earth just in the nick of time.
References from http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/d/dandel08.html
*Please refrain from harvesting dandelions from the side of the road or an industrial area. Look for an undisturbed site where dandelions are abundant and remember to harvest ethically -- never take more than what is needed for your food and medicine. It is important to leave the plant able to thrive for continued growth and service to its ecosystem.
Ilana Sobo is an artist, community herbalist, and Ayurvedic Practitioner in the Greater New York City area. Ilana’s greatest passion is to help steward the plants of Gaia and do her part to share the love, magic and healing gifts the natural world brings forth to share. Please visit her at shaktibotanica.com to connect and learn more about Ayurveda, herbs and her photography project to contribute to United Plant Savers whose mission is to “protect native medicinal plants and their native habitat while ensuring an abundant renewable supply of medicinal plants for generations to come.”