By Lois Hoffman
At this time of year, most folks can be heard cursing all those little yellow faces that turn up in lawns, gardens and just about everywhere. Those pesky little dandelions are weeds that no one wants, especially after they go to seed and the white spheres of seeds protrude above the lawns. Every year Americans spend millions of dollars on lawn pesticides to have uniform, weed-free lawns.
The definition of a weed is “any plant growing where it is not wanted which is in competition with cultivated plants.” Maybe we should re-classify the dandelion and upgrade it from weed status since science now tells us that its leaves, roots and flowers are all useful and good for us. It’s funny how things come full circle because in the 1800’s when folks depended on herbs and the natural things around them for medicine, they would actually pull grass out of their lawns to make room for dandelions to grow. People are once again realizing the benefits of this misdiagnosed “weed.”
The name dandelion comes from the French word dent de lion meaning lion’s tooth because of the plant’s coarsely-toothed leaves. Today, in France, the word for dandelion is pissenlit which means “pee the bed,” because dandelions are strong diuretics.
Technically, dandelions are herbs and not weeds and the plants are pretty complex. Although we lump them altogether, actually 30 various plants make up the species. Some are biennial and some are perennial. It is the only plant that represents the three celestial bodies. The flower represents the sun, the seed ball is the moon and the scattering seeds are the stars. The flowers open in the morning to greet the day and close in the evening to sleep.
Some have roots that go down as far as 10 to 15 feet which help individual plants survive up to 13 years in undisturbed areas. They have one of the largest flowering seasons of any plant and seeds are carried up to 5 miles. No wonder they are so hard to eradicate.
But, do we really want to get rid of these golden gems? If you look beyond their interruption of a totally green lawn, they are actually nutritional powerhouses that help to fight disease. The flowers, roots and stems are all edible. In the garden, they improve the quality of the soil by increasing the nitrogen content and other minerals.
Studies from the University of Maryland Medical Center confirm that the flowers are low in calories and contain antioxidants. They are rich sources of vitamins A, C and K and contain high levels of iron, calcium and potassium. They are widely used in Asian cuisine as ingredients in salads and sandwiches.
Dandelions are a great food source for many animals. Many birds, insects and butterflies consume the nectar and seeds of dandelions.
For years, dandelions have been used in folk medicine to treat infections and liver disorders. They are also important ingredients in root beer and wine production. Roots, which can also be eaten in their whole form, produce a strong tea that is often served as a substitute for coffee.
Dandelion greens are powerhouses of Vitamin E, folate, small amounts of other B vitamins as well as minerals, iron, calcium, magnesium and potassium. Just one cup of dandelion greens yields 112 percent of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A and 535 percent of vitamin K.
The roots are rich in the carbohydrate inulin which is a type of soluble fiber found in plants that support growth and maintenance of healthy bacterial flora in the intestinal tract. Inulin is a prebiotic fiber that has a strong capability to reduce constipation and increase intestinal movement. This makes dandelion roots a great choice for healthy digestion.
They contain polyphenols which combat inflammation in the body and help protect the liver by reducing levels of excess fat stored in the liver. Add to this, they boost the immune system with their antimicrobial and antiviral properties. They also promote healthy skin and bones.
Speaking of fat, dandelions can improve carbohydrate metabolism and reduce fat absorption which aids in weight loss. The chlorogenic acid in dandelions has been shown to reduce body weight and levels of some fat storage hormones.
These dandies have also shown promise in keeping blood sugar in control and lowering blood pressure. The diuretic effect and potassium in the plants are natural sources for getting blood pressure to normal levels.
Now for the big one. Dandelions help fight cancer by preventing the growth of cancerous cells on many organ systems. Dandelion leaf extract significantly reduced the growth of cancerous cells in one study. Dandelion root extract has the capacity to drastically slow the growth of cancer cells in the liver, colon and pancreas. How about that for a “weed!”
I remember when I was a kid, I would take the milky substance from the stems of the dandelion and put it on small cuts because it seemed to be soothing. Whether there is truth in this or not, the milky liquid does contain latex, a substance similar to rubber. Scientists have created a new species of dandelion which produces a higher quality latex in greater amounts. This type has the potential to replace rubber in the production of tires in the near future.
So, maybe with all of these attributes, dandelions shouldn’t get such a bad rap. I have always been in the camp of people who thought they were pretty. I love to look at a sea of yellow in the spring and they are usually the first “flowers” that every kid presents to his/her mother.
Yes, they are irritating when they get to the seed stage but they are gone before you know it. As for reaping all the benefits of this plant, they are free for the harvesting. Just be sure to pick them where they are free of pesticides.
I have always thought that whatever diseases we have given ourselves as results of technology and chemicals, God has provided the cures in the plants and herbs that He has also provided. Perhaps the dandelion is the perfect place to start realizing these benefits.
Images courtesy of Getty Images
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