Learning to love weeds!

Dandelion © Jon Hawkins

Dandelions are commonly thought of as weeds, but did you know they have a fascinating history as herbal medicines? It is one of the most widely used plants in the herbal dispensary.

By Amanda Shaw.

There are many different types of dandelion. The one used in herbal medicine is a very common one that you see everywhere. Its Latin name is Taraxacum officinale. The word taraxacum means ‘wild chicory’ and was named because dandelion, like chicory is very bitter. In France, it is known as ‘pissenlit’ which translated means ‘wet the bed’, a reference to its diuretic properties.

It has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries and indeed is believed to have originated in central Asia. In the west, it also has a long history of medicinal use with records stretching back to Roman times. Today both the leaves and the root are of medicinal value. The leaf has diuretic properties and also contains potassium so it performs as a diuretic without depleting the body of a vital mineral, which some conventional drugs do.

The leaves can be collected during the growing season and make a nice addition to salads. However, they do get more bitter later in the season, so if you want to eat them fresh it is best to collect them in spring. I remember my grandmother telling me as a child her mother sent her out to collect dandelion leaves, which were then used to make a pudding of steamed herbs in the springtime. In the 1800s herbal knowledge was part of rural culture, and cleansing after the winter months was a traditional practice, which is where I suspect practice of making the ‘herbal pudding’ came from.

The root stimulates liver function, improves digestion and has laxative qualities. The root makes a great substitute for coffee! Roots should be collected between June and September when they are at their most bitter, from plants that are at least two years old. Do not collect plants grown on ground previously treated with weed killer.

Wash the roots thoroughly and then split lengthways and leave to dry for one hour in warm sunshine or longer if the weather is cool. Once dry they can be chopped into chunks about the size of your thumb nail and roasted at 200°C for about 30 minutes. Allow to cool and chop them up smaller, re-roast at 180°C for about 10 minutes, allow to cool, then put in an airtight container. To make the coffee, put two heaped teaspoons per cup in a pan and cover with enough cold water for the number of cups required. Bring to the boil and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. Strain and serve with milk. Most health shops also sell dandelion coffee.

Please do not try to self-medicate with herbs without first consulting a medical professional or a qualified herbal practitioner. To find a local herbal practitioner search online for ‘Medical Herbalist’.