Every spring, I dig up dandelions. When I started my first garden, this was an act of fear: “If I don’t get them out now,” I used to think, “they’ll dump seed everywhere!” These days, I still pull dandelions from our small garden in the spring. But I don’t discard them anymore – every part gets used. The roots, bitter and sour, get finely chopped and roasted in a cast iron pan until they set loose an enticing, nutty aroma. After they cool, they’re ready to mix with coffee in the French press (recipe below.) The greens, juicy and salty, go right into a big salad. And we make fritters from any early flowers we find.
If you’re gathering dandelion, either from your garden or on a foraging trip, take the root too, and bring it into your kitchen. Don’t clean that root off too much: a gentle rinse before use will spare the bitter root bark, a reminder of where our medicine comes from. Isn’t it incredible to get back outside after winter, dig into the soil, and interact with raw, living herbs again? The intimacy of working with plants is a tonic in its own right, but it also reveals how close and connected our medicine can be: we need not seek it out in wild, remote places, nor trust only that which is expensive, refined, and manufactured. The dandelion is right there, waiting. It is a safe, simple and powerful way to bring herbalism into the lives of those you love. And root by root, person by person, dandelion breaks apart the rigidity of the Western mechanistic mind just as it breaks through cracks in the pavement.
Old herbalists used to say that, at first, we notice dandelion like we notice a young boy: bright, gaudy, bursting out everywhere but with little stamina. The flowers are an incredible, effervescent riot – but they don’t last, and soon the naked stalks are left, their seeds scattered. But those stalks still stand, less showy, long, smooth, and beautiful in their own right. “I may be ragged, but I persist!” they seem to say. If we persist along with this plant, and take to heart its message of safe, gentle change, we reap the benefits: great digestion of course, but also a healthier relationship with food and with our backyard gardens, parks and fields. Root by root, person by person, our minds shift: what was once a weed is now a partner, a co-conspirator in a ritual that reaffirms connection.
Dandelion moves, breaks up barriers, rises up, persists. But spring can bring more gentle gifts as well, plants that are soothing, sweet, and bright. They remind us that, for every push and expansion, we can build in time to bring care and love into our lives and into our work. This time of year, the violet stands out for me. In the parade of spring, it follows dandelion’s yellow with its own delicate purple-blue and white. You can eat the flowers in salad, or make a tea with leaves and flowers both: it has a delicious flavor, round and full with sweetness and a hint of wintergreen. Preserve the tea with honey or sugar and a little lemon juice: this syrup has the power to soothe and cool. It rebuilds vital moisture and encourages us to take care of ourselves, and rest where violet loves to rest: in the shady spots where the grass is long, where we can dream of the joys that summer will bring. That’s just what I did one day when, returning from a long spring journey, I found the garden full of dandelion seed heads. I sat with the violets and, for a few sweet moments, just felt gratitude and joy. Then I got on with the work.
RECIPE: COFFEE CUTTER with roasted roots
dandelion root, 3 ounces (90 g)
chicory root, 4 ounces (120 g)
burdock root, 5 ounces (160 g)
YIELD: ABOUT 1 QUART (360 G)
If you can get dried roots, they likely will be chopped into small pieces, between 1/4 and 1/2 inch (0.6 to 1.3 cm) in size. This is perfect. If you are harvesting fresh roots yourself, chop them into fairly small chunks with a mezzaluna, and dry them for a few days before roasting.
In a cast-iron skillet set over low to medium heat, add the dandelion, chicory, and burdock roots.
Roast for about 15 minutes, stirring every minute, or until a nutty, toasted smell begins to develop.
Remove from the heat and spread the roots out until they cool to room temperature, then grind to the desired coarseness in a coffee grinder.
Store in a tightly sealed Mason jar. Brew as you would coffee, using 1 heaping tablespoon (about 7 or 8 g) per cup (8 ounces, or 240 ml).
BACKGROUND: In Europe during World War II, imports suffered. In Italy, coffee was almost completely unavailable, and people turned to roasting bitter roots, grinding, and brewing them. Roasted chicory roots are still used in Louisiana as a coffee additive. From a clinical perspective, we’ve often recommended these traditional additives as a way to help coffee “addicts’’ reduce consumption, or at least moderate the daily caffeine dose. The herbs’ flavors, dramatically enhanced by roasting, marry well with ground coffee beans, and the starches in burdock and chicory add a slight, desirable demulcent quality that improves the mouthfeel and reduces the acidity of coffee alone. Use this preparation on its own as a morning breakfast beverage that wakes up the digestion without caffeine, or mix it in any proportion with ground coffee. Once the roots are roasted, they grind easily to any consistency. Brew as you would coffee, in anything from a French press to an automatic drip coffeemaker.