Tuesday 20 January 2009

Searching for lions in winter

Many people know dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) but few go hunting for it across fields in January. Standing in the middle of an empty five acres, gardening fork in one hand and a yellow washing up bowl in the other, I must have looked a strange sight to passing motorists or horse-riders trotting wearily home after a day’s hunting. Bitter wind sweeping down over the Cotswold hills made my eyes water, so I could hardly see and bending down made my nose run, necessitating the application of tissues every five minutes!

Luckily the ground was not frozen, nor was the soil too wet to release the dandelion roots when I found them. “Gather second year roots,” says Linda Ours Rago in her book, “Blackberry Cove Herbal: Healing with Common Herbs in the Appalachian Wise Woman Tradition”, but she doesn’t say how to recognise the difference between first, second or older roots by the crown of new leaves appearing on the surface.

What I discovered was that smaller roots seemed to have more leaves and thicker roots were only just sprouting a dark, green array. The thicker taproots are not like carrots, they are actually the product of several small roots – often from more than one plant- twisting around each other to reach up to half and inch diameter, but with a hollow centre.

It’s often easier to identify the roots once you have tipped the clod of earth upside down. The white root sap will gleam at you from the darkness of the soil, enabling you to almost “crack the clod open” to reveal the root in all its glory – no matter how small it is!

I love roots. I don’t enjoy digging them, especially not on my own, but there is a real sense of achievement and worthwhile effort when you’ve finished all the scrubbing and other preparation and the jar of new tincture is sitting on the table waiting to be put away to macerate.

I washed the roots, scrubbing them furiously before swilling in several changes of water. After that I cut them into small sections less than an inch long and about 1/4inch thick and put them on trays to dry in the fire oven for several hours. They came out very crisp but the leaves didn’t disintegrate on touch, which I would have expected if they had dried too long.

Normally I wouldn’t bother drying them, but they were so wet and my harvest was only half of what Chris and I gathered last year, so I decided to concentrate everything to try and extract the maximum amounts in vodka. It will be interesting to see how it turns out.

Seeing the crispness of the roots made me want to create a dandelion root chai with other spices. Unfortunately my coffee grinder isn’t working at the moment, so I shall have to wait until I gather my next batch of roots to try this out.

It seems only right that dandelion’s Latin name comes from Greek words 'taraxos' (disorder) and 'akos' (remedy), echoing the many centuries dandelions have been helping people. Its English name is derived from the French “dents de lion” meaning lion’s tooth referring to the serrated edge of the leaves. Of course the French have their own word for the plant – Pissenlit – which eloquently describes its diuretic nature.

There are so many different uses and recipes for dandelions. Brigitte Mars has written a wonderful little book called “Dandelion Medicine”. It’s out of print, but still available from the US. She provides a cornucopia of ideas from nourishing soups, fritters and pancakes to cosmetic uses of dandelions.

I played with dandelions a lot during 2008. She was a real ally in helping my body return to a state of balance where my ankles no longer swelled if I sat at my desk all day or stood in front of a group of people during one of my workshops.

The root is historically ally to the liver and Christopher Hedley recommends it for any digestive problems or long term treatment of gall-stones. When my hairdresser was complaining of digestive upsets several years ago, I recommended she try some dandelion tea. I warned her about the bitter taste, but she said she loved it!

Dandelion leaves support the kidneys and bring real excitement to any salad especially when coupled with sorrel leaves! The leaves are best picked before the plant flowers or they can become too bitter afterwards. I remember picking leaves in driving sleet last March, which not only shows how appalling our Easter weather was, but also how desperate I was to gather my own medicine and not be reliant on store-bought produce. Even when the leaves were dried, they still retained a more vibrant colour than the bought dandelion leaves.

My salads are never measured or weighed, but my friend, Debs Cook from The Herb Society produced a delightful dandelion salad and soup when she appeared last year in Countryfile on BBC1 last April. You can find the recipes here.

One of the new dandelion parts I played with last year was dandelion flower. We made the essence during a workshop in May. I thought the flower essence was for happiness, but I was delighted to see a wonderful story given in Matt Woods’ book, “The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism” where an eight year old girl, who was being thoroughly obnoxious to her entire family, completely changed her nature when given a few drops of dandelion flower essence. Unfortunately I didn’t keep any of the flower remedy after the workshop but I shall be making some more this year to offer to harassed parents!

It was dandelion syrup which really turned Chris onto herbal products. I made two batches last Spring. We poured it over porridge for breakfast and Chris decided it made a really nice addition to his mid-morning coffee while I was away at work. I used Non Shaw and Christopher Hedley’s basic recipe for making syrups, inspired by Henriette’s eulogy about dandelion syrup in her blog.

I also made some dandelion flower salve. The sunshine yellow oil makes everyone smile! I was so glad I did, because one lady who came to my workshops had recently had a double mastectomy and she found the salve really helpful in soothing her scar tissue.

I have often thought you cannot really claim to know a plant until you have gathered and used every part of them. Although I have shared many experiences with dandelion, I suspect there are many more secrets she has yet to reveal!


ICQB said...

We have dandelion in abundance in some open fields in the park next door. I haven't yet used this plant and feel guilty about that. I'm glad for this post because it nudges me in the dandelion's direction.

Sarah Head said...

Do have fun with dandelion, ICQB, it's one of those herbs which you're not quite sure about at the beginning, but really appreciate once you get to know her.

Anonymous said...

Oh, you've just reminded me that I've got some dandelion infusion in the freezer dated....May 2007! I made some dandelion syrup which was delicious and kept half of the infusion to freeze so I could make some more later. You can read about it here: http://madaboutherbs.org/dandelion-syrup/

I think it is too old to use now? Better start again.