A Sense of Herbs

Seen any 'Earth nails' recently?

Seen any 'Earth nails' recently?

April 18, 2004|by Dorry Baird Norris

Of course you have. The plants that Peter Gail of Goosefoot Acres in Ohio aptly describes as "yellow-flowered Earth nails" are nothing but the ever-present dandelion.

Gail is the president of Defenders of Dandelions, a group which ascribes to the slogan "Don't fight 'em, eat 'em" and which thinks dandelions are anything but ordinary.

Dandelion, the common English name for Taraxacum officinale, is a corruption of the French "dent de lion" (tooth of the lion). The perfect description for this plant with jagged-toothed leaves.

This ubiquitous plant - well-adapted to grow in "disturbed habitats" like sunny lawns and well plowed fields - is the bane of the lawn-proud. These dandelion detractors are far outnumbered by its boosters: children, honey producing insects, wine makers, herbalists, weather predictors and nutritionists. And there are even those of us, who each spring, welcome the gleaming yellow blooms for their beauty. Some gardeners even grow dandelions on purpose!


The taproot is long, twisted and brittle, which is one of the reasons the dandelion is so tenacious and difficult to eradicate. Leave a single bit of it in the ground when you try to uproot the plant and - bang! - a new plant rises up. The long stem reaches deep into the ground to extract nutrients for growth. The long, jagged leaves of the dandelion also contribute to its success. They form a rosette that collects water and funnels it directly to the root, making the plant drought tolerant.

Kids love dandelions. As the plants go to seed, there are few pleasures more satisfying than puffing on the large, gossamer ball and watching the silky, fairy parachutes float through the air. Tradition says that with each puff you're entitled to make a wish; every tuft left on the seed head determines how many days you must pass until the wish comes true.

All parts of the dandelion are edible. In early spring, the leaves can be collected and tossed with other greens to give salad a slightly bitter tang. The flowers pulled from the stem and sprinkled on green salads add a sunny touch. Larger leaves can be sauted with bits of bacon for a tasty side dish.

The roots, if you can manage to dig them without breaking, can be cooked as a root vegetable. They can be very bitter, so some people cook and drain them several times (like preparing poke weed.) The dried and powdered roots make an acceptable substitute for coffee. They have a bitter taste like that so prized in the chicory enhanced coffee of New Orleans.

The golden flowers are useful for more than garnishing salads, as anyone who has ever made dandelion wine can testify. Our one experiment concocting this elixir was a great success. It tasted wonderful - but it was potent. Somehow the alcoholic content was well above that of ordinary wine. Although sitting on the lawn picking dandelion flowers is a pleasant way to spend a morning it does take a long, long time to collect enough of the yellow petals to make a gallon.

Hediard, a very upscale food shop in Paris, offers Pissenlit - a delicious, sweet dandelion syrup. Translated, the name means "piss a bed," a reference to the use of the leaf and root as a diuretic. Unappealing name aside, the syrup is tasty, having a slightly nutty flavor touched with a hint of vanilla.

Dandelion leaves are powerhouse of nutrition, with more beta-carotene than carrots and more iron and calcium than spinach. You also get vitamins B-1, B-2, B-5, B-6, B-12, C, E, P, and D, as well as biotin, inositol, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium and zinc. All in a free package.

The designation "officinale" in the name, Taraxacum officinale, tells us that it was used medicinally and was listed in the pharmacopoeia. Teas and decoctions made from the leaves and root have been used to treat a laundry list of disorders.

This happy quote about dandelions appears, anonymously, in my files. Written about the determined flower, it also would seem to delineate useful goals for all of us.

"I want to be cheerful. I want to be a survivor. I want to be delicious. I want to be a healer. I want children to love me. I want to be bright, and sunny, and colorful. I want to survive and grow and bloom and be a bright spot where I am."

Go, bloom and be a bright spot right wherever YOU are.

The Herald-Mail Articles