I am to gardening what Freddy Kruger is to precision surgery. In my hands, the blade of a trowel and prongs of a fork are lethal to any living thing. Where some people have beautifully manicured lush green lawns, mine is a scraggy, patchy, overgrown mess. Moss, daisies and dandelions are perfectly at home among the scruffy tufts of various grass species that inhabit the patch of land surrounding my home.
I don’t despair though, because I see it as part of my job to encourage wild flowers (otherwise known as weeds) as they are so important to help our vital pollinating insects to thrive. In the past, the dandelion was one of the most accursed of visitors, its strong roots growing so deep into the ground that you had to possess almost superhuman strength to pull it up. And even when you did, often the roots would snap, leaving the ends deep in the soil, ensuring it would soon re-emerge.
But the reputation of dandelions has transformed over the years, and they are now recognised as very useful plants indeed. Those who still regard them as unwelcome invaders of their herbaceous borders might not be pleased to know that a quick look on the internet will throw up lots of advice on how to propagate and grow them successfully. As every frustrated and exhausted gardener knows, the distinctive dandelion clock is one off the most efficient ways of spreading seeds and is one of the reasons they are so hard to eliminate entirely.
I think my dad was ahead of the curve 40 years ago when he suggested that we should consider growing it as a crop in his column from 16th May 1981. “Why do we insist that the dandelion is a weed? It has wonderful properties and could be a most useful asset to the human race,” he writes.
It is well known that the leaves can be eaten in a salad or, as my dad suggests, wilted it in a pan with butter as you would spinach. As my lawn is home to what one might term a ‘healthy crop’, I decided to test out these suggestions. After throughly washing a few leaves, I took a bite out of one while I tried to wilt more with butter.
First of all, the leaves didn’t wilt like spinach, but just kind of shrivelled up, and secondly, they were about as tasty as the brown stuff my mum used to paint on my nails to stop me biting them. I’ve still got the bitter aftertaste in my mouth as I write, so I’m not sure I will ever be tempted to add them to a salad. However, there are lots of recipes online, and if anyone has one that will prove me wrong, please feel free to send it my way.
Another curious revelation my dad makes is that the roots can be roasted to make a healthy and caffeine-free alternative to coffee. He claims that it is ‘barely distinguishable’ from real coffee, which I found hard to believe until I did a bit more research. Sure enough, most reviews I found said that it was possibly the closest alternative to real coffee, but tasted less acidic and slightly sweeter. You can try digging up and roasting your own roots, although it does seem like a bit of a palaver, so if you fancy giving it a whirl, it might be easier to try one of the suppliers online who sell it relatively cheaply.
People have also been known to make dandelion beer and wine, although one friend reported that when she tried it, the resulting brew ‘smelled like the bottom of a beck’. So I won’t be tempted to give it a go.
The English name for this versatile flower is a corruption of the French ‘dent de lion’, which means ‘lion’s tooth’, a reflection of the spiky shape of its leaves. I also wonder whether the bright yellow ‘mane-like’ flower has something to do with it. It is known colloquially by many other names such as blowball, cankerwort, milk witch and monk’s head to name but a few.
Another well-known alternative name refers to the fact that it has an undesirable side-effect if you consume too much of it. This side effect is revealed in the name itself: ‘wet-a-bed’!
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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 21st and the Gazette & Herald on 19th May 2021