I made a fantastic salad this week. The greens were just incredible. I didn’t find them at the farmer’s market, or in the organic section of the health food store, or at the high end grocery. I yanked ‘em right out of my own backyard.
I’m amazed how much more aware I’ve become of the plants growing around me since starting the Wildflower Herb School just a month or so ago. And I’m not just talking the potted plants in my own spot (although those, too, have benefitted a bunch from my adventures in herbalism), but about all of the plants growing all over the place, that I’d just never noticed before.
The definition that we learned recently for “weed” was simply: “a plant that grows where you don’t want it to.” It often applies to hearty, well-adapted bioregional plants that will pop up and proliferate just about anywhere. But because of the negative connotation packaged up with that word, a lot of us have grown up thinking that weeds are “bad” or useless plants. In fact, a lot of them are edible—and really good for you.
Like dandelion. Dandelion greens have been enjoyed in salads and treasured as medicine for years. They are slightly bitter, stimulate digestion, and have anti-inflammatory properties. They’re also very high in vitamins A and K, and higher than spinach in iron. You can pay a lot for them. Or you can forage for your own.
I’m lucky enough to live on the very back corner of my apartment complex, right next to a great big field full of trees and dotted with these cool little rock piles that have earned it the name “Stonehenge” by some and “Pet Cemetery” by others. I sure hope those aren’t all pets who’ve passed…so I prefer the former.
Before I started learning about native plants, I never would’ve seen that field for anything other than a big ‘ol stretch of grass and weeds. Which it is. But as I was sipping my morning coffee on the balcony last week and watching a couple of dogs chase each other around down there, all of a sudden my eyes focused a little closer to ground level and it hit me—that thing was chock full of dandelion.
Many were already in partial or full bloom, others at the end of their life and ready to pick and blow for wishmaking and whatnot (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you didn’t spend enough time outside as a kid).
So I headed down in my barefooted excitement and got all in touch with my inner child and the nature spirits, prancing around, looking for those little yellow flowers—and then quickly became aware of the field’s other abundance, lots and lots of dog poo. That smacked me back into reality a bit and made for much more careful stepping.
It’s easy to mistake dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) for other members of the Asteraceae family, which is rife with pretty little yellow flowers—so if you’re in the mood for backyard salad, be careful which you pick. In Central Texas, its closest lookalike is sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus), which will often grow all around and right next to it.
True dandelion has two key features: the soft, toothed leaves that give it its name (lion’s tooth) and grow in a circular pattern at ground level, and its single inflorescence—dandelion flowers grow one per stalk. Sow thistle, on the other hand, has thicker, spikier leaves that sometimes climb up and around the stalks, and its flowers grow in little groups. My teacher Nicole Telkes wrote a great article about the differences between these and other yellow-flowered plants, which is specific to Central Texas but very detailed, readable and informative.
All this to say, don’t read this post and think you’re ready to rush out and pick dandelion greens. Do a little research on your bioregion and be aware of any lookalikes. Picking and eating the wrong plant could be unpleasant, or even harmful to you. And if your yard (or field) is treated with chemical pesticides, it isn’t safe for foraging.
But if you’ve got a nice, natural spot and an eye for true dandelion, I encourage you to get out there and pick your own. Wash them really well, whip up a homemade dressing and fix your own backyard salad this spring.
Originally published for PK4 Media.