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Dandelionsby Gary Allen

As I write this, the first tender leaves of dandelions are just showing above ground. For some of us, that marks a hopeful sign that spring has actually arrived (or is about to). For others—people who are fussy about their lawns—it's a call to arms in an often hopeless battle (unless one is willing to resort to chemical warfare). In a fair fight, the dandelions will almost always win.

Obviously, they are weeds—but what, exactly, is a weed? Aside from their tendency to spread on their own, what is it that sets “weeds” apart from other plants? Sometimes it's their sheer fecundity. Weeds will grow anywhere, out-pacing and competing with plants we want to thrive—such as our crops, flowers, and lawns. From an evolutionary standpoint, weeds are great success stories. The farmer’s or horticulturalist’s point of view is somewhat less enthusiastic. The vigorous growth of these introduced species makes them especially good at claiming disturbed soils as their own. The tilled soil of domestic agriculture, unfortunately, is prime “disturbed soil” for weeds. Roadsides and abandoned lots are other examples of disturbed soil—and most of the plants that colonize such places are weeds, many of which are either known Old World herbs, or plants that possess some of the desirable characteristics of culinary herbs.

Dandelions are a prime example of such an Old World herb. There are two subspecies of dandelions: Taraxacum officinale officinale and Taraxacum officinale ceratophorum. The former was brought here by early colonists, on purpose; the latter was already here—and was used by native Americans long before the European version arrived.

The name “dandelion” is a corruption of the Middle French dent de lion, an allusion to the fearsomely-toothed edges on the leaves. Oddly enough, the modern French name for this plant is pissenlit, which any child can tell you, means “wet the bed.”

Rumors of their bed-wetting potential aside, they do possess desirable culinary properties. The young leaves provide early salad greens that are high in vitamin C—something that was very important to our forebears, who lacked our access to year-round supplies of fresh vegetables and fruits. Slightly older leaves make good pot-herbs. Slowly-cooked, like collards or kale—especially with a little bit of pork product, such as fatback or bacon—they are delicious. Just make sure to harvest them before the flowers appear, before they become unpleasantly bitter.

Dandelions have long tap-roots, as any gardener can attest. The Latin word for “root” is radix— which gives us radicchio, which was originally a term for any of the early-season bitter greens enjoyed by folks around the Mediterranean: chicory, dandelion and endive (our “radicchio” is an endive cultivar). The roots of dandelion, like those of chicory, can be dried, roasted, and ground as a substitute for—or additive to—coffee.

Finally, the flowerheads of dandelions can be, and have been for hundreds of years, made into wine. Many years ago, I made some. It was thin and not something I would have thought worth trying again. However, I have also have some, made by others, that was a gloriously-luscious golden nectar. Such wine would be delightful as a dessert wine, or for such occasions that call for a glass of sherry. Now that the dandelion season is upon us, I might just have to start a batch…

“Dandelion Wines: Special Recipe Collection” is a website that includes many recipes, complete with instructions that first-time or experienced winemakers can easily master.

Parts of this article are excerpted from Gary Allen's upcoming book, Herbs: The Savory Weeds, a volume in published jointly by Reaktion Press and The University of Chicago Press.

You can find more of Gary Allen's culinary wit and wisdom on his website:

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