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For many people, dandelions are a nuisance. Sure, the first few that emerge might be welcomed as a sign of the return of spring, but soon they’re popping up all over the yard. An army of them arises overnight, and if you think of them as weeds, they’re enemies destined to be mowed, chopped, dug or sprayed into oblivion.

That’s a shame though, because dandelions are an abundant source of nutrition. Not only are they edible, they’re richer in vital nutrients than many other more reputable plants that bear the moniker “health food” — not “weed.

Consider this – a half-cup of dandelions has more calcium than a glass of milk and more vitamin A than carrots. Add in the plant’s abundance of vitamins C and K plus a healthy helping of antioxidants, potassium, magnesium and folic acid and it’s enough to make a spinach leaf turn green with envy.

The benefits of dandelions have been known for centuries. Medicinal use can be traced further back than the Greek and Roman empires. The Chinese have used them for at least a thousand years. They were well-known to the Puritans who journeyed to the Americas from Europe in the 1600s, bringing dandelions with them as a medicinal herb.

The plant has been used to treat ailments ranging from warts to flatulence and almost everything in between. While the effectiveness of some of these various treatments may be up for scientific debate, recent studies indicate extracts from the dandelion root may be effective in fighting a certain kind of cancer, as well as potentially offering support for type-2 diabetes, improvements in antioxidant status and lipid profile and protection for the skin against UVB damage.

Modern Americans’ desire for fairway-perfect lawns sullied the poor dandelion’s reputation for decades, but as health-conscious people have become more knowledgeable of what they eat over the past few years, the plant has seen its honor rightfully restored.

Not only do they possess a decent nutritional value, they also benefit your food budget. They’re free!

All you have to do is pluck them from the yard or a nearby field. Also, dandelion plants pose no threat to the environment, attract beneficial wildlife and spread easily. A gust of wind across their distinctive puffballs can send seeds flying for miles.

Of course, there are some things you should do before your toss dandelions into your salad bowl. Most important, make sure you avoid any that grew where pesticides were used or pollution is heavy. If you’re not 100% positive if pesticides were used, don’t eat them. Be sure to wash them thoroughly, especially if you have pets that roam the yard.

Dandelions like sunny locations and will grow from spring through fall, depending on the climate where you live. You can harvest them anytime, but they’re best in the spring when they’re young and tender. Dandelions are somewhat bitter by nature, but if you cover them with opaque cloth for a couple of weeks before harvesting, the leaves will naturally blanch and this removes some of the bitterness.

One of the easiest ways to prepare dandelions for the table is in salads. For the best results gather the greens before the plants flower. You can use them like you would any of your salad makings, mixing them in with whatever other ingredients you prefer. Mix the dandelions with other greens, such as raw kale and spinach, shredded cabbage and carrot. Sprinkle in toasted cashews or almonds and top it off with a vinaigrette dressing and season to taste with sea salt and pepper.

Dandelion greens mixed with lemon juice and pumpkin seeds can whip into a fine pesto.

In addition to eating them fresh, you can boil, bake, or fry dandelions. The plant’s greens sautéed with chopped onion and a touch of garlic make a nice standalone dish. You can stir up a healthy soup with a batch of dandelion greens, water, chicken stock, cream, and egg yolk.

Or try your hand at dandelion syrup. All it takes is dandelion flowers, honey and lemon juice. It also takes patience because it’s a two-day process of boiling, steeping, and draining. The resulting healthy sweetener is worth it though, and makes an excellent addition to your morning tea or coffee.

The easiest thing to make is dandelion tea. Simply pack fresh leaves and flowers into a jar and pour in simmering water. Once it’s cool enough to drink, you’re good to go.

Dandelion greens also make great substitutes for chard, collard greens, mustard greens, kale or any other greens you encounter in recipes but might not stock in your refrigerator or can’t find at the supermarket.

If you still have more dandelions than you know what to do with, you can try using them to make dandelion-infused vinegar, soap and shampoo.

Dandelions grow wild almost anywhere, but you can buy dandelion seed if you’d rather keep them contained in a garden area, where you know you can keep them safe from pesticides. You’ll also be able to find several varieties that are less bitter than the common yard plant. Although the plant prefers a sunny area, it will tolerate and thrive in just about any conditions – as you probably know if you’ve tried to rid your yard of them.

So if your yard is overgrown with dandelions you can’t control, take some advice –

If you can’t beat ’em – eat ’em!