by Elise Krohn, GRuB's Traditional Plants Program Director
As I weed the GRuB nature trail with volunteers, I sit quietly for a moment and take in my surroundings. The autumn light is long and full of deep shadows. Hues of gold, red, and brown glow against the deep green of sword fern. The air seems clearer now than it did in summer, and my senses are heightened. With a deep exhalation, I settle into listening. Not just listening with my ears but with my whole body. Blue jays talk to each other in the nearby grand fir. A winter wren sings on its low salmonberry perch. An alder leaf catches my eye as it trembles on the branch high above me. It wavers and then cascades down in a spiral fall. The wind picks up, and suddenly I am in the midst of a ballet of dancing leaves,drifting gracefully to the ground. Every year, I witness this amazing act—the leaves on the trees letting go—and every year, it takes my breath away.
Nature is pruning, composting, and distilling form into essence. I, too, am compelled to let go in autumn. After summer’s abundance and activity, I am ready for stillness. I have worked hard to harvest the foods and medicines of the growing season in order to keep us healthy through the cold months. Now I can sit back and reflect. What treasured moments will I store in my pantry of memories? What cluttering possessions can I prune away and pass along to someone who needs them? What activities can I let go of so I enjoy life more? How can I focus my energy on what is most vital? I am also thinking about how I can cleanse and nourish my body during this season.
Dandelion root is one of my favorite autumn remedies. Often considered a weed, it is both a nutritious food and a powerful medicine. It is also medicine for the land. Dandelion helps to improve soil quality. Roots draw minerals up from deep layers of earth—concentrating them in the whole plant. When the plant dies back, it deposits these minerals on topsoil. Roots also aerate hard packed soil and create pathways for water to enter. If you are weeding a garden, this is a great time to dig the roots and dry them for tea or infuse them in vinegar or alcohol.
Dandelion root generally helps our body to get rid of waste products. It supports our liver, an organ that is responsible for breaking down dietary toxins, drugs, hormones, and metabolic waste. It also promotes elimination of excess uric acid, which can cause tissues to become more inflamed and reactive, potentially leading to allergies, hay fever, and gout. Arthritis, acne, psoriasis, liver dysfunction, and PMS may be improved by taking dandelion. Dandelion root also acts as a gentle laxative through stimulating bile, which helps us to break down fats, and through gently stimulating the rhythmic contraction of the intestines. Another remarkable quality of dandelion root is that it helps our liver to preferentially make high quality fats (HDL) versus poor quality fats (LDL and VLDL). These fats are building blocks for cells in our body, and their quality determines the integrity and resilience of our tissue. Good quality fats lead to healthy tissue, which leads to good overall health.
In autumn, dandelion root contains up to 25% inulin—a compound that it produces to store energy. Inulinis a popular addition to foods and medicinal products for several reasons. It helps us to absorb minerals including calcium and magnesium and is also a prebiotic—meaning that it feeds healthy gut flora. Inulin provides some of the energy of carbohydrates without the need for insulin, making it an ideal plant for diabetics. In addition, diabetics are typically deficient in minerals, and dandelion helps to replenish these.
To receive optimal anti-inflammatory and liver supportive properties, use fresh roots by eating them, tincturing them in alcohol, or making infused vinegar. The dry root tea is boiled as a decoction and is nutritive, good for digestion, and detoxifying.
Identifying and Harvesting Dandelion
For such a common weed, dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) can be easy to misidentify. Many look-alike plants have similar leaves, but dandelion leaves are nearly hairless. They have toothed edges,hence the French name, “dent de lion” or lion’s tooth. Leaves and hollow flower stems grow directly from the rootstock. Dandelion only has one flowering head per stalk. Other look-alikes have many flowering heads per stalk. Each dandelion can produce more than 5,000 seeds per year, which form “wish balls”that are carried away with the slightest breeze or breath. Individual seeds with parachute-like hairs have been known to travel on the wind as much as five miles! Dandelion roots, leaves and stems all exude a milky white sap. The genus Taraxacum includes over 250 species that grow throughout the world.
Dandelion roots are best harvested in autumn when they grow fat and become sweeter. Avoid harvesting along roadsides,agricultural or industrial sites, places that have been sprayed, or areas frequented by dogs. When digging dandelion, even the smallest piece of root left in the ground will grow into a new plant. Use a shovel or digging fork to try and remove the whole root. Rinse roots to remove dirt.
To dry dandelion roots, dig them up, wash thoroughly, pat them with a towel to remove excess water, and then dry them whole in a dehydrator or on a basket next to a wood stove. You can also hang-dry the roots by using a long piece of string, wrapping each root a couple times, letting out six inches of string, and wrapping another root, thus making a long dandelion root chain. Once dry, use clippers to cut the roots into small pieces, then store in a glass jar.
Dandelion Root Lattes
In fall, GRuB Youth often dig up dandelion roots and dry them to make a flavorful drink. Dandelion lattes are also an activity in the Tend, Gather & Grow Curriculum. While they don’t exactly taste like coffee, they have a bitter, sweet, and earthy flavor that many people enjoy.
- Place chopped dried roots on a cookie sheet and roast in an oven for about 30 minutes at 250 degrees F. When the roots turn golden brown and begin to smell like baking cookies, they are done.
- Place one teaspoon roasted dandelion root per cup of cold water in a pot, bring to a boil,and turn down to simmer for about 15 minutes with the pot covered. Add your milk and sweetener of choice, and enjoy!
This is an easy way to use dandelion root for supporting liver health, digestion, and detoxification, but it contains alcohol and is not appropriate for everyone. Chop cleaned fresh roots in small pieces. Place in ajar and cover with 80-100 proof vodka or brandy. Cover with a tight fitting lid. Label. Let sit for two to three weeks, shaking occasionally. Press with muslin cloth and store in a glass jar in a cool dark place. Tincture will last seven to nine years. The milky substance in the tincture that falls to the bottom is inulin. Shake and use 30-80 drops two to three times a day.
Dandelion Infused Vinegar
Most of the medicinal compounds in dandelion are soluble in vinegar. Prepare using the same method as the tincture but use brown rice,apple cider, or other types of vinegar with at least 5% acetic acid. Take half to one teaspoon two times a day. You can use this in salad dressing or on other foods.
CAUTION: If you are on prescription medications, consult your doctor, naturopath, or herbalist before using dandelion. If you have never tried dandelion, just use a little bit the first time, and see how your body responds before taking a large amount. On rare occasions, people can be allergic to dandelion.
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