Some people consider the humble dandelion to be a garden-variety weed, but to others, it is a harbinger of spring, a green delicacy marking the end of a root-vegetable winter. The name, an anglicization of the French "dent-de-lion," or lion's tooth, refers to the sharply notched edges of the leaves. Native to Europe, the dandelion grows in temperate climate zones all over the world.
The discovery of those distinctive jagged leaves colonizing backyard flower beds may not gladden the hearts of gardeners but dandelion greens have become popular enough that many grocery stores stock cultivated varieties. Dandelion greens are high in vitamins A, B complex, C and D, and minerals including iron, potassium, magnesium, calcium and zinc. The University of Maine says that 3 1/2 oz. of boiled greens contain about 33 calories, .06 g of fat and 2 g of protein.
Uses in Herbal Medicine
The dandelion features in Asian, Middle Eastern, European and Native American traditional healing practices as well as contemporary herbal medicine. The diuretic properties of the leaves once prompted the French to give the plant the nickname "piss-le-lit," which means the same thing as its former English nickname, "bed-wetter." Dandelion leaves may be used to treat conditions affecting the liver, kidneys and gallbladder characterized by fluid retention, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. In bygone days, dandelion had a diverse range of therapeutic uses but today's herbalists mainly use it as an appetite stimulant and digestive aid. Some research suggests that it may play a role in improving immune system function and promoting gastrointestinal health, says the University of Maryland.
How to Harvest and Cook
Ideal foraging times will vary, depending on location, but in regions with four distinct seasons, the window of opportunity for collecting the best dandelion greens will likely occur over a couple of weeks in April or May, when crocuses are coming up but snow hasn't entirely disappeared from forests and fields. Avoid areas where exhaust fumes or chemical herbicides may have polluted air or soil. The smallest leaves are most tender and suitable for use in salads. Larger leaves will be tougher but good for steaming or chopping and adding to soups and stews. Greens will stay fresh longer if you dig up the plant's root and keep it wrapped in moist paper towels until ready to use. Always wash the greens thoroughly under running water. Like spinach, cooked dandelion greens freeze well.
Emeril Lagasse is a fan of dandelion greens sauteed in olive oil with onion, garlic and a pinch of hot pepper flakes. The French say that greens and bacon are a match made in heaven. Greek-style greens may be stewed with lamb; the Spanish favor them in soups with smoky sausage; the Chinese give them a quick stir-fry; the Indians add them to curries; and creative salad chefs combine them with a variety of raw vegetables and fresh herbs.