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Got Lots of Dandelions? EAT Your Weedies!

Q: Mike: I have not used any chemicals on my lawn since 2007, just Gardens Alive products like corn gluten meal and natural fertilizer. But only one of the three neighbors whose lawns are near mine cares for their lawn organically. There is a 40-foot buffer of pine trees between my lawn and one of the chemical-using neighbors, but the other is directly adjacent. Now, our lawn has lots of dandelions (the children love the yellow color in spring) and my wife regularly buys dandelion greens from the store to eat; she loves them! Can she eat the dandelion leaves from our lawn? Are they safe to pick with chemically treated lawns nearby? If they are, when is the best time to pick them? Thanks,

    ---Leslie in West Windsor, New Jersey

You had a caller on the show recently with a dandelion 'problem'. You should have told her to eat them! The greens make a good salad and the tubers can be used like water chestnuts. Here's a link to more information at the website of NCAMP, the Northwest Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides.

    ---Euell Gibbons fan Max in Oklahoma City

A. Over the years, the subject of eating dandelions has come up frequently on the show, with some people mentioning that they tried the leaves in Spring salads and didn't care for the taste. That might just be timing. As with many greens, dandelion leaves become bitter if left to grow too long into the season—and 'too long' comes early with these greens. Wild food enthusiasts explain that you have to harvest the leaves before any flower buds form on the ground-hugging rosette. Not before the flowers open; before there's any indication that there's even going to be a flower on the darn thing.

It's the same with other Spring greens, like lettuce and spinach, whose leaves turn bitter just as the central stalk that will eventually produce the flowers on those plants begins to appear. So this isn't a 'problem' that's specific to dandelions; all Spring greens have a relatively short picking window. Very short in comparison to the life span of the plant.

So rule number one is to pick early and often. You can further ease any bitterness by 'sweetening' their soil with a little lime or wood ash, especially if it tests—or tastes—acidic. (This will also help the lawn if that's what they're growing in.) Of course, you don't want to harvest dandelions from chemically cared for lawns. And if like Leslie in New Jersey, you're concerned about them even growing near such places, stick with the plants closest to the center of your safe and sane turf.

Some gardeners will push the sweetness thing even further by blanching the leaves. This can be done by covering the young plant with a box or upside-down pot whose drainage holes have been covered (the same as with asparagus and endive). Or you can tie the leaves up with string—the way some growers keep cauliflower heads brightly white. Just a few days in the dark should lighten the color of the leaves and sweeten them up.

Dr. Peter Gail, an Ohio wild food expert we interviewed for a dandelion piece back when I was editor of ORGANIC GARDENING magazine, noted that some French enthusiasts ensure a steady supply of fresh, locally grown greens in the winter by growing dandelions indoors. They dig up about a dozen roots outdoors after the first frost, pot them up, put them in a sunny windowsill and continually harvest and enjoy the succulent new growth.

So you don't even have to go out foraging in March or April to taste the best flavor these greens have to offer! And no matter how you grow them, they're highly nutritious; a half-cup serving supplies almost 300% of the RDA of the cancer fighting nutrient beta-carotene—plus nice amounts of vitamin C, calcium, magnesium and potassium.

And who knows what ills the eating may cure! The botanical name for the plant, Taraxacum officinale, means "official remedy for disorders." (We know for certain that the leaves are a good diuretic, leading to the plant being given some very colorful common names in Olde England and France.)

You get the most health benefits from raw greens, but dandelion leaves are also delicious cooked. Try them the Italian way—briefly boiled, and then quickly stir-fried with garlic and olive oil. You can try eating the roots like water chestnuts as Max in Oklahoma suggests; stir-fried in olive oil with some soy sauce added at the end; or boiled and pickled, as our favorite medicinal food expert, Dr. Jim Duke enjoys. (The roots taste best when harvested late in the season—after the first light frost has sweetened them up, like carrots.)

The flowers are great attractors of beneficial insects, especially ladybugs, but they can be eaten as well. Some folks add the young flowers to omelets, while others dip them in batter and quickly deep-fry them like tempura vegetables; the resulting delicacy has a very distinctive flavor that some compare to the prized morel mushroom.

You'll find lots more recipes at this website; it chronicles the 2001 edition of the 'dandelion dinner' held annually by the Chamber of Commerce of the city of Vineland, New Jersey. You'll find information on upcoming dinners—held every March or April—at the Chamber's website.

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