So our Wild Thing for the month of April is the common dandelion. Which, if you're like me, probably thought something like "are you kidding me? They're so BITTER!" But then Butter cleverly pointed out that they're NOT actually bitter when they're young, and the flowers aren't bitter, and the roots are much more like coffee when roasted (which just opens up a whole bunch of recipe ideas, don't you think?). And the cool thing about them is that they're everywhere except maybe the very northernmost parts of Siberia. Though I must admit if you live in the very northernmost parts of Siberia you may have a few more problems than just finding dandelions. For the rules and intro to the Wild Things roundup, click HERE. And to read more about identification, and the lovely things that Butter has to say (including her first recipe...which makes me feel like a total slacker) click HERE. Here's the quick version: find it, make stuff with it, use it and experiment, then email us the results to email@example.com :D. Dandelion, known by its botanical name, Taraxacum officinale*, is a really valuable medicinal herb. In fact if you look in almost any modern herbal, there will be a description of this plant and what it does.
Botanical name: Taraxacum Officinale
Properties: cooling, drying
Taste: bitter, salty
I'm pretty sure that the dandelion doesn't need very much description. Bane of most gardeners, lovechild of most folk herbalists, and to everyone in between, I'm sure as a child you at least know somebody who reveled in blowing the seeds off the 'clock' to tell what time it was (to the horror of all gardeners who saw it, most likely). As a wild-thing-slash-herbal-terrorist, I take great pleasure in blowing those little seed heads all over the place, so really the practice need not be relegated to childhood games. Though I wouldn't trust their time-telling skills, especially if you have an important meeting to get to.
Dandelion is one of those plants with what seems like a gazillion different properties that are too numerous to remember. The main areas that it works, however, are on the liver and those things affected by it; on digestion; and on the urinary system.
Dandelion as liver tonic:
Dandelion stimulates bile production and overall liver function. Culpepper says that it is "of an opening and cleansing quality, and therefore very effectual for the obstructions of the liver gall and spleen, and the diseases that arise from them". This would explain why it's most commonly toted as a 'blood purifier', as it's the liver that filters most of the crap from the blood. And when thinking of 'toxins' in the blood, it's not just things like fast food. The liver also filters hormones and stores glucose and helps the body break down fats, among numerous other things.
Dandelion is great for hot, inflammatory conditions that are related to the liver-- acne, eczema, red burning eyes, headaches (specifically those involving tense neck), arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis. Matthew Wood has even used it for inflammatory mental conditions such as manic depression and schizophrenia (Do I need a disclaimer here? Don't be an idiot. If you or someone you know is on medication for one of these things and want to see if dandelion will help, see a professional.). And believe it or not, all of these conditions are related. In Appalachian herbal medicine there's a commonly used term: bad blood. Which sounds silly now, since we know what blood is and that it's not bad. But before the days of dissection and knowing what a blood vessel was, 'blood' was the fluid in the body, and 'badness' was it being full of crap. Now, I guess it would refer to things like the portal venous system, and interstitial fluids of the body. When the liver is not functioning properly, the portal vein, which carries all the waste to the liver to be processed, backs up. The liver cannot filter out all the crap so it stays in the blood stream. The cells cannot get rid of all of their waste products into the blood stream, so it hangs out in the fluids in the spaces in between, and this can cause a multitude of symptoms which seem completely unrelated but in fact all have a similar root cause. The term used for a herb that affects this is 'alterative'.
So dandelion is an alterative that helps the liver with detoxification, which in turn helps with hormonal irregularities; menstrual imbalances such as PMS , swollen breasts and cramping; blood sugar irregularities (hypoglycemia), and mood imbalances, most of which are often caused by sluggish liver function. According to Susun Weed, it is of great use in situations where there is "swelling, torpidity or congestion; stress from pregnancy, rich food, chemotherapy, and other chemical exposure; damage from alcohol or drug abuse; jaundice, and hepatitis." Torpidity and congestion need not mean serious conditions like hepatitis and jaundice either-- feeling sluggish, like your limbs are heavy, like your brain is foggy, and you have high cholesterol, this is congestion, and 'bad blood' too.
Dandelion as digestive tonic:
There's a common phrase in Chinese medicine: "Eat bitters to avoid a bitter life". Or something like that, except in Chinese. It's something that we avoid in the Western world, where our taste buds are pampered by a constant influx of sweetness. But bitters are eaten world wide as a digestive and blood tonic. In the spring in most cultures, bitter herbs are eaten-- take, for example, Passover, where bitter herbs are eaten as ritual. Imagine, if you will, that you lived in a place where there were no grocery stores. After you've recovered from the shock, imagine how you'd feel after a long winter of eating nothing but animal fat and potatoes. And then imagine how you'd feel seeing the first greens poking up through the ground-- dandelion, nettles, poke. These plants clean your blood, clean out all the sluggish crap that you needed to get through the winter. And they stimulate digestive secretions and get your digestive fire going again.
Dandelion as a source of minerals: As well as helping the body's detoxification process, dandelion is also a fantastic nourisher-- jam packed full of minerals like iron, manganese, potassium and phosphorous. Especially the leaves.
Dandelion as urinary system tonic:
The leaves of dandelion are rich in potassium, and are a strong diuretic. But unlike most diuretics, because of their high mineral content, dandelion helps to nourish the urinary system while helping it flush itself. For this reason dandelion is of great use in all kinds of kidney and bladder diseases. According to Culpepper, it is "vulgarly known as piss-a-beds" which refers to its diuretic qualities.
Dandelion flower infusion is a great skin toner, helping to smooth uneven complexions and get rid of zits and dry spots. They are also, infused in oil, great for muscular soreness.
The roots act more on the liver and as an alterative. The leaves are much more diuretic and high in minerals. And the flowers act on the heart. The great thing about dandelion is that, despite all of the amazing things it does, it's surprisingly gentle. So it can be used in small to large doses: From 1-100 drops of the tincture (root, leaf or both), and up to 2 cups of the infusion a day.
To increase its alterative effects, I'd combine with mahonia as a base for a formula. To enhance its effects on the urinary system, add gallium or arcostaphylos or monarda, depending on the situation (and if it's a UTI I skip the dandelion and go straight for the monarda or arcostaphylos usually).
Cautions and Contraindications:
Since they are highly diuretic, caution must be used in people with kidney disease. That is, if using for these things, please do so under the watchful eye of a practitioner with experience. They are also very drying and cooling, and thus can aggravate cool, dry conditions.
Wood, Matthew: The Earthwise Herbal
Weed, Susun: Healing Wise
Buhner, Stephen: Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers
Culpepper, Nicholas: Culpepper's Herbal