Foraging Fun: Taraxacum officinale

The common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) hardly needs an introduction. It is one of only a few plants that the vast majority of those inhabiting temperate climates worldwide can easily recognize. Many of these same people are very likely to have interacted with dandelions in a meaningful way as well, whether as a child wishing  upon the wispy seed heads or frustratingly attempting to remove them from a garden.

Yet as you will see, this lowly weed is not only both edible & medicinal but is also an excellent conduit in which we may learn about ourselves as a species, how we have fundamentally changed the world’s ecology and how we should best react to our changing environments and landscapes. Understanding the life cycle of and experiencing dandelions first hand as an edible or medicinal herb will help to shed light on what this one plant among countless others can teach us.

This knowledge and awareness surrounding the virtues of the dandelion is, thankfully, growing as people are opening up to the prospects of being active participators and stewards of their local plant communities, whether tended or wild. foraging is most certainly not this untouchable place that only a select few can master. I see it instead as an  unfortunately underutilized universal trait. I implore everyone to at experience it at least once, and under the guidance of an experienced individual of course.

Freshly dug dandelion plants along side some equipment that I recommend for efficient and comfortable harvesting. Dandelions can be harvested as soon as the ground thaws.

As many of you probably know by now I could spent the better part of a week attempting to document the exceedingly rich enthobotanical history surrounding dandelions but this time I am going to try to stay focused on one particular use for the dried, roasted and ground roots. These are used to make a surprisingly irresistible coffee substitute, which is a practice that I have come across countless times over the years but never got around to trying myself. I have clearly been missing out.

Fortunately for the enthusiastic forager dandelions are essentially ambiguous with the majority of human habitats and there is a fair amount of evolutionary history that helps to explain why dandelions and people seem to be inseparable even as much as some would like to believe otherwise. Although there is no way in which to definitively prove any of these educated speculations, some believe that dandelions followed our early ancestors from the caves into our modern cities.

Even under ideal circumstances it can difficult to tease dandelion roots out of the ground in one piece. The blanched, white crowns make delicious and highly nutritious vegetables.

We may have literally been evolutionary companions with the dandelion as we inadvertently created the sorts of ecological niches that dandelions require for their survival. People tend to create an enormous amount of ecological disturbance where ever they settle down, build communities and grow food. Dandelions require disturbance in order to succeed, as they are easily out competed by more dominant plants that steal away the life giving sunlight and nutrients that dandelions require to be healthy.

Dandelions in association with many other early successional species are essential to the natural transition of open, recently disturbed environments into mature forests which is a typical of succession in many temperate ecosystems throughout the world. Dandelions in fact hasten to shift their environments away from the  conditions that they themselves require for survival. They are a forever transient species and this is obvious if one takes into consideration the dandelion’s characteristic seed dispersal method.

Dandelions are a perennial species and individuals can live for many years, in the process developing forked upper stalks which give rise to many crowns.

Once dandelions have occupied an area for a number of years that environment has likely changed significantly (as saplings and larger plants appear) and no longer suits their requirements. The next generation of dandelions must therefore find another suitable environment in order to succeed. These conditions could be hundreds of kilometres away, and so the seeds take to the sky to seek new territory.

An environment will change unless it is continuously disturbed and more dominant plants are removed in order to prevent succession from taking place. In suburban gardens and agricultural fields alike, people deliberately prevent natural succession from progressing and create a habitat that is perpetually suitable for dandelions and other ‘weed’ species that we have decided not to like even though they often perform essential ecological services.

An assortment of different dandelion plants of varying ages drying in the evening sun after being sprayed with the garden hose to dislodge all of the soil clinging to their roots.

You may be wondering how exactly dandelions accomplish transforming their surrounding environments. One of the ways that they do this is through their root structure. Dandelions develop enormous tap roots which can extend several feet into the ground which breaks up hard, compacted soils, leaving behind conduits in which water and nutrients can drain deep into the soil. Dandelion roots, as they mine the subsoil for nutrients, transport these nutrients upwards and enrich the topsoil as their leaves die each year.

Eventually the entire plant will die which leaves a rich residue of accumulated nutrients behind. By breaking up and increasing the fertility of the soil, more dominant species which require higher levels of moisture retention and fertility will benefit from the conditions that the dandelion has provided in earlier stages of succession. Of course there are other perennial plants which possess similar traits and facilitate the same sorts of the changes, but we aren’t talking about them right now are we?

Young dandelion crowns, washed and ready to be prepared and consumed in any way you see fit. I find that the crowns of young but vigorous plants are especially delicious.

So now that you thoroughly understand how and why dandelions are ecologically significant and have a brand new outlook on them, let’s discuss how exactly you can make use of them. For starters, they are one of the first plants of the season that can be used by the intrepid forager. As soon as the ground thaws in early to mid March (at least in southern Ontario) the roots can be excavated from the cold, soggy earth using a long narrow space or garden fork.

As I mentioned, the roots can be misleadingly thick and long, and even with proper tools are sometimes difficult to retrieve from the ground in one piece. Of the few dozen (out of hundreds) individual plants that I was lucky enough to dig up whole, the largest specimen measured just over 2 feet in length, and that’s just from the beginning of the root system. Often the crown of the dandelion is nestled a few inches below the surface with just the leading edges of the leaves showing above the soil.

Dandelion roots after they have been scrubbed clean in the sink. This is roughly what 3 pounds of roots looks like and took about an hour of non-stopping digging to accumulate.

As a side note, these dandelion crowns, which are often white due to the lack of sunlight available to them beneath the soil surface, make absolutely delicious vegetables and I relish them every spring and autumn when they are at their best. During the warmer weather they become much too bitter and tough to eat, and so they are certainly a cool weather crop that is available earlier and later than other wild vegetables.

Whether chopped fine and mixed with other vegetables in a salad, used as a garnish or briefly steamed whole and served with salt, pepper, butter and lemon juice, they are a mildly bitter green that is something to seek out and to get excited about.  It is a foraging experience that is not to be missed and there is hardly an excuse not to indulge, as you are very unlikely to decimate the local dandelion population. If you like rapini, you will love dandelion leaves and crowns harvested before the plant really gets growing.

Dandelion roots after they went through the food processor. The roots tend to turn brown as they oxidise, but this does not impact the quality of the final product in any way.

Once you have dug up as many roots as you would like (I dug up just over 6 pounds of fresh roots, which is a lot of dandelions) then you need to clean them up. You don’t need to get them perfectly grit free for this purpose and I find spraying them down with a hose and then bringing them inside and massaging them under the tap removes ~95% of the dirt. The roots come in all sorts of wonderful shapes and sizes similar to ginseng with many twisting arms and legs branching off of the main tap root, which may split into many segments if growing in a heavy soil.

Next you want to chop the roots up if you would like to prepare them as a beverage (which you definitely do). Food processors are great for this and can make quick work of a whole bunch of roots. Afterwards I spread my macerated roots on trays and fitted them into my dehydrator where I dried them at the highest setting (200°F) for about 2.5 or 3 hours. Alternatively, this same procedure could be performed in the oven with the door slightly open so as to allow moisture to escape more readily and not build up.

Dandelion root chunks after they have been thoroughly dried in the dehydrator and are ready to be roasted and ground into your coffee substitute.

After drying they can be roasted in a 350°F oven for about a half hour. Obviously these times will vary depending on how finely the roots were chopped up and the efficiency of your appliances. The last step is to put your dried, roasted roots in a coffee grinder. You can grind them however fine you would like and to suit which ever coffee making apparatus you have on hand. I use a stove top espresso maker, which I find makes a better (and stronger) cup of coffee then anything else I have tried before.

When the dandelion roots are in your dehydrator or oven you will notice a characteristic malty aroma emanated from them. This aroma intensifies when you roast them at a higher temperature. I find that they smell a bit like chocolate and peanut butter cookies then they are in the oven. When you finally brew up your first cup of dandelion coffee substitute into you will finally understand why all of this digging, washing, scrubbing, drying, roasting and grinding is worth the effort. If in the company of friends and family it could hardly be considered work at all.

Dandelion roots after they have been finely ground in a coffee grinder. Depending on how dry and roasted the roots are they will grind much faster than whole coffee beans.

I was sceptical at first about how this beverage would taste in the end, even though I would like to think that I am pretty open minded about these sorts of things. I regard myself as a fairly experimental person that is willing to go pretty far out of my comfort zone to try something new but I have to admit that I had my doubts. I had come across articles about dandelion coffee substitutes (such as this one which my recipe is loosely based around) numerous times before but never actually motivated myself enough to attempt it.

All in all I am very glad that I decided to dedicate my time to this adventure and am thoroughly impressed with the results. There are numerous coffee substitute beverages which can be purchased in stores which are quite nice. Many of them not only contain dried roasted dandelion roots but also chicory roots, barley, figs, acorns and other fanciful plant-based ingredients. If you are curious about decaffeinated coffee-like beverages I recommend that you explore some of these as most of them are extraordinary and unique.

A strong cup of bold, roasty dandelion coffe beside a cup holding some roasted root chunks before being ground. Store the roasted and ground roots to same way you would coffee.

Dandelion coffee is an immensely beautiful drink and very much deserves to be enjoyed and appreciated on it’s own so one can understand the unique qualities that are specific to dandelion roots. The resulting beverage is as black as the dead of night with a chocolatey, malty and roasted aroma and flavour. I particularly enjoy adding a bit of this roasted dandelion root to my actual coffee as I find it accentuates the flavour and aroma of the coffee itself, especially dark roasted blends.

Dandelion roots are not only a pleasurable indulgence when prepared in this way but are also quite a nutritional and medicinal powerhouse. The roots as well as the foliage (with 100 grams containing 203% of your daily requirements for vitamin A) are rich in nutrients and many minerals including potassium, zinc and iron. They also have diuretic properties by promoting the action of the kidneys which filter out toxins from the body. They also promote proper liver function, further assisting with detoxification and purifying the blood.

The bitterness of the roots additionally stimulates healthy digestion through encouraging the excretion of digestive enzymes through the gall bladder into the stomach. A serving of dandelion root coffee taken before or after a meal can therefore reduce episodes of nausea, indigestion, bloating and gas that a large meal may otherwise promote. In conclusion, if you are willing to put forth the time and effort in which to engage in dandelions as a food or medicinal (which I highly recommend that you do) you likely will not be disappointed.