Dandelions Are a Spring Surprise

Words and original painting by Hailey Talbert

After a bitter winter, we welcome the harbingers of spring --- crocuses peeking up through thawed soil, bird songs on sunny mornings, and spring produce in the markets – with open arms.

One spring herald not so well received is the dandelion. Often regarded as a garden pest, the dandelion and its diaphanous seeds that allow the plant to take root far and wide has been vilified for decades. It’s time to rethink that bias as the cheery, yellow-flowered plant is both ecologically valuable and almost entirely edible. According to Anita Sanchez, author of The Teeth of the Lion – The Story of the Beloved and Despised Dandelion, they were highly regarded throughout history for their medicinal qualities, so much so, that many people removed grass from their property to cultivate dandelions instead.

Today, folks who want manicured lawns spend hours tugging them out by their roots. Dandelions are arduous to remove because their durable roots can stretch down as deep as fifteen feet. These roots both prevent erosion and enrich the surrounding topsoil by drawing nutrients from deep within the ground, making them readily available for nearby plants.

In addition to these ecosystem benefits, dandelions are also delicious. It is important, though, to take precautions when harvesting them. When foraging for dandelions, avoid spots where pesticides and herbicides are being used. And wash them well before incorporating them into any dish.

Most parts of the plant are edible (not the flower stem!) and can be included in a variety of recipes, from fresh spring salads to creamy quiches. The head of the dandelion can be consumed fresh or dried. Michelle Jarvie of the Michigan State University Cooperative Extension recommends dropping a few onto half-cooked pancakes as you would banana slices. They taste of honey but have slightly bitter and earthy undertone. Although the prospect of incorporating dandelion heads into your diet is exciting, save some of the flowers for the bees, as they are among the first flowers available to pollinators in springtime in Maine.

The leaves, with their salty and slightly bitter taste, are the most versatile part of the dandelion. They are more tender when harvested before the flower blooms. They can be sautéed, creamed, added to soups, used as salad greens, and tossed on pizzas. Dandelion leaves can be incorporated into any recipe that calls for spinach or arugula. The roots need to be used judiciously. They can be simmered into soups with other spring vegetables, but only in small amounts as their earthy taste can be overpowering.

Turn over a new leaf this spring; Keep an open mind about the dandelion. Giving them a chance will benefit both the ecosystem and your taste buds.