Back when we were all involuntary locavores--meaning most of human history--March was the meanest month. The larder was low, the stored fruit long gone and we were left nibbling away at beans and pickled meat.
There were no corner stores with shipped-in oranges, bananas or baby greens, and therefore our vitamin C levels--a vitamin only available from fresh foods--were sinking dangerously low. Our teeth might have loosened in their sockets, the hair on our pale heads drifting off in feathery clumps, our joints aching with each labored step as scurvy, that then-common killer, was quietly settling in. Despite the warming weather, it would be weeks before anything fresh and edible would sprout. Except for dandelions.
In those lean days we gazed upon those first dandelions of March far more affectionately than we do today. Even under a layer of late snow, those hardy perennials sprouted, slowly spreading their spiky, vitamin-rich leaves and saving lives. If we still had the strength to hunt for them, we carried deep gratitude and a pair of scissors to those young dandelion plants--not, as is our habit today, a spray bottle full of herbicide.
After all, Taraxacum officinale, the dandelion's botanical name, means "official remedy for disorders." Idaho herbalist, author and lover of dandelions Darcy Williamson says dandelions were prized enough in days past that European immigrants carried their seeds with them to the New World. Dandelions were so medicinally crucial that in the mid-1800s, Williamson says, they "were brought over en masse to treat an outbreak of hepatitis in New York City."
"Besides trace minerals," she writes in her "From the Forest" newsletter, "dandelions contain more beta-carotene than carrots, more potassium than bananas, more lecithin than soybeans, more iron than spinach, and loads of vitamins A, C, E, thiamin and riboflavin, calcium, phosphorus and magnesium. All these nutrients, even without the other substances contained in dandelions, are enough to explain the reputation they have as a liver tonic, blood purifier, anemia arrester, vision improver, reducer of cholesterol and blood pressure levels, and a host of other things."
Williamson, who sells herbal products and teaches herbal practices through her business From the Forest in McCall, says that Idaho has a few of its own native dandelion species with nutritional properties similar to their European cousin. Those natives are not, however, as prolific or as early sprouting as Taraxacum officinale and therefore not as well timed to scurvy season.
She says that early American settlers knew all about the health benefits of dandelions but also how to moderate the leaves' inherent bitterness.
"The pioneers would, in the autumn, go out with old feed sacks or whatever they had on hand, and they would cover their dandelions," she said. "Then as soon as the snow melted back enough in spring so they could pull back that covering, that's how they harvested them."
Shielding the tender young plants from sunlight kept the leaves from becoming bitter--and today, putting a bucket over a dandelion plant for several days will also moderate its harsh bite (which gets even harsher once the plant blooms).
Dandelions were so popular in 19th century America that they were sold in seed catalogues. Dandelion flowers were even exhibited in flower shows under names like "French Large-leaved" and "American Improved Dandelion." Thoreau, of course, admired dandelions.
Only the early 20th century popularization of the American lawn caused the dandelion to fall out of favor. In a big way. We now spend billions of dollars annually on lawn care, a good chunk of which is devoted in a futile fight to pull and poison this savior-of-our scurvy-plagued-ancestors out of existence.
Futile because a dandelion's tap root can drill to a depth of 15 feet and its seeds can soar high into the jet stream. That makes dandelions notoriously tenacious. Rather than waging chemical warfare, Williamson suggests dispatching them in the kitchen.
"They're a very smart plant," she says. "They're a people-friendly plant. Dandelions, it doesn't matter what you do to them, they're still smiling at you the next year. If we just would use them as they were originally intended to be used, I think we would develop a much better appreciation of them."
There are plenty of websites, articles and at least one book available to help you learn to appreciate dandelions. They'll teach you to love a good dandelion salad, make soothing dandelion tea, turn those golden flowers into dandelion wine and maybe even prep you for the National Dandelion Cook-off set for the first Saturday in May in Dover, Ohio.
And just in case you don't have enough dandelions already, Williamson sells seed.