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A warm spring in much of Canada and Europe has most of the world's dandelion crop in full bloom. (Winfried Rothermel/Associated Press)

In Depth

Living Green

Dandelions: Time to throw in the trowel

Pesticide bylaws make it easier

June 13, 2007

Gardeners, you might as well give up.

Culinary uses:

  • Flowers for pickling, and making dandelion wine or beer.
  • Dried to be used in teas.
  • Raw in salads (especially younger plants).
  • Cooked in soups and omelettes. (Older plants can be boiled to reduce bitterness.)
  • Roots, ground, as a coffee substitute.

In fact, you might even find dandelions become appealing, with a surge of new municipal bylaws limiting the use of weed pesticides.

The yellow flowers could seem pretty (at least from afar) compared to the $255 to $5,000 fines that the City of Toronto plans to hand out for spraying.

Lawn care companies in Toronto have already been ticketed since April 2004 under a bylaw that bans the use of pesticides on all public and private properties except in certain rare cases. Come September, the fines will apply to everyone in the city.

At least 126 other Canadian municipalities have similar rules in place, while several other regions have them pending.

In this scenario, tattletale neighbours reporting illegal pesticide use are encouraged. (Toronto has a complaint form available online.)

Officials are also promoting environmentally safe ways to get rid of weeds.

But dandelions aren't going away easily. With hardy roots, alternate solutions include using the more labour intensive garden hoe, or a dandelion digger.

"Basically, dandelions are ineradicable. If you don't use pesticides, the amount of work that's involved is really prohibitive," said Dr. Ernie Small, a principal research scientist and dandelion expert at Agriculture Canada.

"You certainly can use all of the other techniques that are recommended.… I'm not saying that you have to live with dandelions but you can't eliminate them," he explained.

They can survive in the crevice of a wall or between cracks in a sidewalk. Light fluffy seeds easily parachute in the wind, planting even in the smallest places, while their contractile roots — the kind that pull farther downward into the soil each year — protect them from frost. Most other plants with roots closer to the surface can get damaged.

Were they brought to the continent deliberately?

Nutritional value in 100 grams (nearly half a cup):

  • 3.1 mg iron.
  • 397 mg potassium.
  • 9.2 g carbohydrates.
  • 2.7 g protein.
  • 66 mg phosphorus.
  • 187 mg calcium.
  • 76 mg sodium.
  • 36 mg magnesium.
  • 14,000 IUs vitamin A.

As the legend goes, dandelions have been spreading their seeds in North America since 1620, when European settlers accidentally brought them over on the Mayflower.

"Very frequently, weeds have the capacity to be distributed in ways not conscious to people," Small said. "They'll come across as contaminants in seeds used for cultivated plants, or they'll attach themselves to fur [on animals]. They just get into things that people value, get transported and then make it on their own."

Recently, another theory holds that the British transferred them more deliberately — for medicinal and culinary purposes.

Historically, Anglo-Saxons and Normans used the plant to prevent scurvy. Romans also began using it this way, after being introduced to it by the Celts during invasions.

The dandelion is native to all of the Northern Hemisphere, but its origin can be traced generally to Eurasia, where the Chinese first used it to cure ailments.

Arabs were second to apply dandelions in this way, using them by the 11th century. It's thought Arabs introduced Europeans to the plant's medicinal benefits.

Medicinal uses of the 'pis en lit'

How to pick dandelions:

  • Choose young dandelions in a yard, field or wooded spot away from areas where they might be contaminated by vehicle emissions, herbicides, fungicides or insecticides.
  • Pick them in the spring when they're young and at their least bitter and tough.
  • With a knife, cut the entire plant from the ground up, leaving the root. Discard flowers except for the closed ones: the rest aren't edible.
  • Pick enough to fill a large bag or basket, taking into consideration they will wilt considerably in the cooking process.
  • Younger ones can be used it salads, while slightly older ones may be boiled to reduce bitterness.

It might be a lot simpler for people these days to similarly embrace the plant instead of trying to eliminate it.

In Canada, the plant's root is registered as a drug. It treats conditions such as anemia, kidney disease, jaundice, arthritis, respiratory infections and gallstones, to name a few of many uses.

The plant's milky juices, which contain latex, help get rid of warts and can repel mosquitoes.

Dandelions are also known to reduce obesity. In scientific studies, rats and humans injected with dandelion lost up to 30 per cent of their body weight.

But the plant's most popularly known medicinal use is as a diuretic.

Dandelion comes from the French dent de lion or "lion's tooth" for its jagged leaves, but is also called pis en lit and in Italian folklore piscialletto, which in both cases means "wet the bed."

In this way, dandelion is very potent, according to Rowan Sage, a University of Toronto botany professor.

"It is recommended that wild dandelions are cooked in two successive pots of water to leach out the bitter compounds and medicinal agents," Sage said.

"Children playing with dandelion have been known to wet the bed the following night just from absorbing some of the compounds through the skin."

More calcium than a serving of milk

When eaten, dandelions can be surprisingly good for you. Half a cup of leaves has more calcium than a glass of milk. They're also an excellent source of iron, vitamin A, potassium and vitamin C.

Even though a diuretic, vitamin loss is not an issue because the count is so high (14,000 IUs of vitamin A per 100 grams).

In fact, when counting overall nutritional value, the U.S. Agriculture Department puts dandelion ahead of broccoli and spinach.

The best-tasting dandelions are the youngest spring ones, picked before they flower — usually in April or May.

How to cook them:

  • First, double-wash the dandelions in a sink of cold water. (They tend to be sandy.)
  • Cover them with water in a pot, and bring to a boil.
  • Much like spinach, they are ready once wilted and the water turns colour.
  • If using older plants, rinse and boil them again to take away excess bitterness.
  • Drain cooked dandelions and transfer to a pan with one to two tablespoons of olive oil and a clove of chopped garlic.
  • If desired, season with salt and red pepper flakes.
  • Then, lightly saut´┐Ż on low heat for about 15 minutes.

But experts warn against eating wild dandelions unless they're picked from the right places.

"Most people would tend to find dandelions in suspect areas — lawns, roadsides and agricultural fields," explained Sage.

"Many lawns and farms these days have reduced environmental quality due to steady use of herbicides, fungicides and insecticides, while roadsides are affected by heavy metals and engine exhaust."

The hardy dandelions tend to absorb toxins. And even with new pesticide bylaws, the soil containing them takes many years to replenish itself.

Harvesting non-toxic dandelions means choosing plants far from the roadside in a pesticide-free backyard or farmer's field, or in a wooded area.

But the safest way is "to forage for them in your grocery store," joked Small, who wrote a book about the culinary uses of dandelions.

He suggests trying the more subtle-tasting French varieties, which can also be grown in Canadian backyards.

Will they take over the planet?

Along with their ability to suck up toxins, dandelions might also be a barometer for global warming.

A paper published by Dr. Annette Menzel, a German ecoclimatologist, reported on dandelions developing earlier in the spring due to warming temperatures.

And they respond well to higher carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, with some evidence indicating the raised levels could make the plants grow even faster.

Could global warming and new bylaws cause an unwieldy spread of dandelions?

As Small explained, "The classical scenario you get in movies that some plant is going to take over the world — it's just not. It's very unlikely that people or nature itself is going to substantially change the balance that's been established."

Recipe for pickled dandelion flower buds

Ingredients

  • Young dandelion flower buds, tightly closed (not yet opened for the season)
  • Garlic, chopped
  • Onion, chopped
  • Ginger, chopped
  • 1 part tamari or soy sauce
  • 3 parts apple cider vinegar

Directions

Fill a pickling jar for two to three centimetres with chopped garlic, onions and ginger.

Then add dandelion buds until about a third full.

Repeat process until jar is filled to top.

Cover with one part tamari (or soy sauce) to three parts apple cider vinegar. Seal with a plastic lid or if using metal, put waxed paper between the lid and dandelions so it doesn't rust shut.

Let sit for three weeks on counter. Then use as a condiment like any pickle. There's no need to refrigerate jars, even after opening.

(Source: Good Natured Earthling)

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