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Spring Into Foraging Season With Dandelions



Along with the return of robins and whirling bees, I count the appearance of dandelions among the first signs that spring has officially arrived. I look forward to seeing their cheery butter-yellow flowers, and admire their tenacity as plants. It takes a survivor’s spirit and dogged determination to thrive in the manner of dandelions, growing everywhere from lush fields to the worst of disturbed ground, even in cracks of sidewalks. As much as I admire dandelions’ perseverance, I also particularly enjoy them as a food. Their edgy bitter green flavor is a welcome addition to mealtime after a long winter filled with dreary grey skies and heavy slow-cooked dishes.

Every part of the dandelion plant is edible. Perhaps you’ve enjoyed a salad of bitter greens served with bacon and a splash of vinegar, or savored a cup of dandelion root coffee. You may even have delighted in dandelion flower fritters or sipped dandelion wine. But have you eaten every part of the dandelion?

Where to look for the best dandelions

I learned from edible wild plants expert Samuel Thayer how to eat two of the less commonly eaten parts of dandelions, the flower stalks and crowns. After a few years experience eating them, I’d say that dandelion crowns are among my favorite spring foods.

I playfully call them “yard artichokes,” because their rich flavor is somewhat reminiscent of artichoke hearts.

To find the best dandelion flower stalks to use as food, seek out large plants in shady areas. These grow in tall grass, which forces the stalk to grow quite long in order for the flower to not be obscured by grass. Longer stalks mean more food with less picking. Seek out the youngest, most pale green flower stalks, as they will be most tender.

Remove the flower heads from the stalks (and be certain to eat them or make dandelion wine). Boil whole flower stalks in boiling water for 10 minutes, as recommended by Thayer, then drain them. Serve dandelion stalk “noodles” dressed with a little butter and salt, or incorporate them into your favorite dishes as a vegetable.

Harvesting tips

Harvesting dandelion crowns takes a bit more technique. The crown of the dandelion is the tight knot where the leaves meet the tap root. Even in a large plant, it may not be more than a single bite, but it is a very satisfying one. Seek out young spring dandelion plants that have not yet flowered. Look for plants with a tight nest of new buds at their core.

If you are harvesting an entire dandelion plant, either because you intend to eat it, or because you are, gasp, weeding it, the first step is to wash the plant free of as much dirt as possible. Cut off the root, and peel away the outer leaves, and you will be left with the little nugget that is the crown. Rinse it again as thoroughly as possible under running water because it is likely to be very dirty.

Thayer, however, has come up with a clever method of harvesting dandelion crowns without all of the dirt. He uses a sturdy teaspoon with sharpened edges to selectively harvest crowns from the plants. I’ve found that a grapefruit spoon with serrated edges or a pocketknife also work well. Again, seek out large dandelion plants that have yet to flower. Use your spoon or knife to carve a cone-shaped piece of crown right out of the plant, which is still in the ground. Harvested in this manner, the plants require little additional rinsing to remove any remaining grit and dirt. Even if you intend to later remove the entire plant, if you find that you particularly enjoy dandelion crowns, harvesting them in this manner saves time.

Dandelion crowns have a touch of the same bitterness as dandelion leaves and feel like a solid bite of vegetable in the mouth. Use dandelion crowns as you would asparagus, adding them to any soup, salad, or stir-fry. They can be eaten raw, but I prefer to serve them cooked.

My favorite way to serve “yard artichokes” is similar to how I’d serve real artichokes. Steam prepared dandelion crowns until they can easily be pierced with a knife, usually around 10 minutes. While they are steaming, prepare small ramekins full of melted butter kissed with a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of salt. Dip the steamed dandelion crowns into the butter bath before enjoying the tender morsels like the toast of spring that they are.

Top photo: Dandelions. Credit: Erica Marciniec

Zester Daily contributor Wendy Petty is a wild foods enthusiast dedicated to showing people how to transform abundant, "weedy" plants into free and nutritious kitchen staples. She is the foraging instructor at the Laughing Coyote Project, and shares her favorite wild foods from the Rocky Mountain region at Hunger and Thirst.

  • Tina 3·29·13

    When I was a kid, my dad, born and raised in Southern Italy, would harvest dandelion greens from the Kmart parking lot near my house. I was embarassed at the time, but it’s gratifying now to realize he was actually ahead of the culinary curve.

  • Wendy Petty 3·30·13

    That reminds me of a story told me years ago about how they went to a restaurant that served the finest greens that they’d ever tasted, everyone agreed, and they even ordered a second helping. When they left the restaurant, they saw the cook in the parking lot out back, picking the weeds.

    That’s pretty much my life right now, stooping in the unlikeliest spots, getting food where other people see only neglected fields, ditches, and lots. It’s a kind of food wisdom that we’ve only lost in the last generation or two. But I see a lot of hope, both in the surge in popularity in canning/preserving and foraging. I think we’ll be the generation to reestablish this sort of food knowledge, and create a lovely balance of living in this modern world, without having completely forgotten old food ways.

  • Kate 4·1·13

    Just the excuse I’ve been looking for to get out and do some “weeding” out in the yard! And anyone else’s yard who will let me…

  • Wendy Petty 4·1·13

    Before it snowed last week, I was out mulching over my dandelions to protect them. I know that not everyone will go to that length for dandelions. But I do believe that if you are going to weed them out of your yard, you should absolutely eat them.

    I didn’t address cooking the greens here, as it is more common, but I have a special piece of bacon in my freezer (my friends made it) that I use for sauteing dandelion greens with garlic and a splash of vinegar. It’s heaven!

  • Alfred 4·1·13

    Remember to be ethical in foraging Dandelions. Though they seem to be everywhere, the early blossoms are critical food sources for bees.

  • Kate 4·2·13

    Ooh bacon and bitter greens do sound heavenly!

  • Christine 4·2·13

    My mom grew up foraging dandelions on the family farm in northern Italy. Now, living in the city, we worry about pesticides, exhaust from passing cars, and other contaminants. Are they safe to eat if cleaned and properly cooked?

  • Wendy Petty 4·3·13

    Alfred, you make an excellent point. The first rule of foraging is always to show a respect for both plants and the greater environment in which they grow.

    Christine, that can be a tough call. Always err on the side of safety. If you suspect that a plant has been sprayed, I wouldn’t eat it. That said, there are absolutely places to forage within city limits. Look for places that look unloved by humans. Turn your eye away from manicured parks and toward vacant lots. If at all possible, you can call land-owners to see how they treat their properties.

  • shen 5·25·13

    I have a question. I am making dandelion syrup. If I pick the flowers at the end of season will this effect the taste? I am hoping they will not be bitteror anything.

  • Wendy Petty 5·31·13

    Shen – Your dandy flowers should be fine. Just pick them while the sun is shining, and try to find ones that are newly emerged and bright.

  • bull 3·13·14

    best website ever thank you

  • Kate. 3·13·14

    Note to self: Make dandelion wine. And dandy stalk noodles? I’m so excited right now!!!!