Rachel Lambert: forager, author, guide
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Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) are a common weed that are often overlooked or taken for granted. Yet they are so good for us!

Here I share 5 health benefits of eating (or drinking) dandelions. Plus tips on where to find them, as well as common mistakes with identifying dandelions and 4 simple ways to incorporate dandelions into your diet.

How important are dandelions?

By the way, dandelions have been cultivated in areas of Europe and North America for over 150 years. That's how valuable and important they are!

5 Reasons to Eat (or Drink) Dandelions

  1. Ask anyone about eating a dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), and they might quote the dandelion's diuretic properties. It's French name being 'pissenlit' or 'wet the bed'. Though few people know that dandelions are a very mild diuretic, and diuretics tend to flush potassium out of the body. Though dandelions also contain potassium, thus replacing what is flushed out - that's good!
  2. The dandelion's latin name refers to its many health benefits, the Greek word taxaros meaning disorder and akos meaning remedy (2). Dandelions contain a wide range of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin A, some Bs, C, D and K.
  3. The 'dent de lion'  (Lion's tooth)  also contain significant amounts of calcium, magnesium, iron and folate.
  4. Dandelions can have a mild detoxing action as bitters benefit the liver.
  5. Dandelions can stimulate digestion and improve gut bacteria (through the presence of inulin).

Where to find Dandelions

Isn't it just the way; when you want to find dandelions, there just don't seem to be any, anywhere. So here are some tips. In general, they like to grow on various grassy areas, parks and wild mountainous ranges, but below is some more specific information.

In the UK there are two most common types of dandelions and about 250 types in all, though some are quite rare and others quite distinct from each other. The two most common are;

Ruderalia (121 species) type of dandelions grow well on grassy areas, meadows, waysides and waste places. Erythrosperma (30 species) are more slender and thrive in warm, dry and sunny spots such as chalk grassland, heaths and dunes.

How to correctly identify dandelions

As you can see from the images above, the shape of dandelion leaves can vary depending on the variety. However, they all have a toothed edge AND a hollow stem that created a milky sap when snapped. The stems are not branched, nor solid. That is how to make sure you've found dandelions and not one of its common cousins.

4 simple ways to incorporate dandelions into your diet

  1. Dandelions are bitter, so if you're cooking them it is good to cook them separately in a little water for 2-3 minutes, then drain them and add them into whatever you're cooking. Start with small amounts - think a teaspoon rather than 50 g.
  2. Chop finely and sprinkle as a garnish. Again, think small amounts.
  3. Pour boiling water on a couple of chopped leaves and leave to infuse for 5 minutes and drink as a tea (sweeten if needed).
  4. Add leaves into salad and mix with other leaves and serve with a honey or mustard dressing.

Chunky pieces of dandelion root caramel brittle

Sweet, crunchy and good for you. This dandelion root caramel brittle recipe is laced with the detoxifying roots of dandelions and flavoured with homemade dandelion coffee. You'll also need to look at my recipe for making good roasted dandelion coffee. Alternatively, you can buy dried dandelion roots and dandelion coffee at health food stores or online.

Freshly dug up dandelion roots

This recipe is perfect if you've been doing some weeding and have a few, young-ish dandelion roots to hand. It's good to allow the roots to dry out for a day or two first - this reduces the water content and condenses the flavour. Dandelion roots are best to dig up in Autumn and Winter when nutrients are concentrated in the roots.

Something sweet...

Like many good recipes, this one came from experimenting and using the leftover syrup from another dandelion recipe I was creating. Ooh, there's so much to share with you! Remember to use the #sweetwilds and @rachellambertwildfoodforaging if you try this recipe, tweak it or have a foraged dessert or sweet treat to celebrate, I'd love to hear from you!

Dandelion roots drying out in the sun

Unrefined Sugars

It's a myth that caramel needs to be made with white sugar. This recipe uses unrefined caster sugar which retains some of the natural nutrients of cane sugar. I was brought up on sugar - the white stuff - and my taste for sweet just hasn't gone away. Rather than deny myself this pleasure I use unrefined sugars in my recipes. You may want to read my blog Sweet Wilds: A forager's confession.

This recipe is full of sugar!! Great for an energy boost but best to use sparingly. You can also crush the brittle in a pestle and mortar or with a rolling pin and sprinkle over cakes or desserts.

 

Dandelion Root Caramel Brittle Recipe

Crunchy, ever-so tasty dandelion sweets. The dandelion flavour is mild and good for you.

Ingredients

  • 100 g dandelion roots, washed and dried for a day or two* (see notes below)
  • 160 g unrefined sugar
  • 1 dessertspoon dandelion coffee liquid cooled
  • 1 tsp used dandelion coffee grains

Line a large baking tray with baking paper. Chop the dandelion roots into approximately 2 cm lengths. Over a high heat, use a wide, non-stick pan and evenly sprinkle in the sugar and chopped dandelion roots. Stir together the dandelion coffee grains and dandelion coffee and splash into the pan. Do not stir, just allow the sugar to dissolve. This will also cook the dandelion roots a little too. Leave the mixture bubbling for 5-10 minutes, until large bubbles start to form and the mixture turns a chestnut brown. Pour over the baking paper and leave to set for about half and hour. Break into chunks, or crush for desserts, I like to eat it as a sweet treat when I could do with an energy boost. Store somewhere dry and use within a month.

*Dried dandelion roots can also be used. Use just 60 g if they are completely dried.

A plate of homemade dandelion root caramel brittle

 

Roasted Dandelion Coffee

Ever thought of using your weeds to made a tasty coffee-substitute?

The History of Dandelions

Like many common weeds, dandelions are often vastly under-estimated, under-used and misunderstood. Despite being cultivated in parts of Britain, France and North America for over 150 years (1), they are still often considered just a 'weed' that needs eradicating. Similarly, coffee-substitutes are easily linked to events like the Second World War, when people resorted to roasting grains, acorns, cleaver seeds and dandelions roots instead of or to bulk up rationed coffee. Though in the 1900s it was also sold as an inexpensive coffee.

Dandelion roots can be used to create a caffeine-free coffee substitute, but dandelion coffee is also a drink in its own right. Made from roasting and grinding the roots, it gives off a pleasant aroma and has a slightly bitter after-taste, reminiscent of coffee or dark chocolate. Here I share step-by-step how to make homemade dandelion coffee.

 

1. Identify Dandelion Roots

How well do you know your dandelion roots? This might sound obvious to you, though I often see dandelions being misidentified. To complicate things (but only slightly), there are around 250 different types of dandelion. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) has toothed leaves, a hollow, branch-less stem with a milky sap and yellow flowers. Thankfully, this is also the most common dandelion.

 

Freshly dug up dandelion roots

2. When and How to Dig Up Dandelion Roots

The tooth-shaped leaves of spring and summer mark where I needed to dig. The roots of dandelions are long and thin and can be up to 25 cm in depth, not that I'm measuring. It is easy to snap them near the top if you don't carefully dig around the root, and even then, I normally have a few that mostly remain in the ground. So take your time. The slightly older ones are said to be the best, 1 or 2 years of age are a good size and not too bitter. If you’re digging on your own patch you might get to know your dandelions this intimately.

I find flower beds and vegetable patches the easiest to dig from, as the soil tends to be looser there. I've also made the mistake of accepting the offer of digging up a lot of dandelion roots from a friend's grass lawn. Yes, I did rid them of their dandelion roots, but I also left them with a lot of muddy holes. I wasn't invited back. In the UK you need permission from the landowner to dig up roots, though there’s always people who’ll happily let you do their weeding for you.

Autumn and Winter is the perfect time for digging up the roots. In the colder, darker months, the plant's energy is concentrated in the roots, making them sweeter and more nutritious. I like to time my digging with the waning moon too, when the pull towards the earth and those roots is strongest.

 

Drying dandelion roots for coffee

3. Preparing the Roots for Making Coffee

The roots need to washed well, then pat them dry and leave them in a warm place for 2-3 days to dry further. This will reduce the amount of time they need in the oven and concentrate the flavours. During this drying process the weight of the roots will halve. Next, finely chop the roots and preheat the oven to 180°C/fan 160°C and dry roast the roots for 30-40 minutes (turning halfway through). The roots are ready when they are dark brown. Leave to cool and store in a clean jar. Grind for drinks and other recipes as needed.

Chopped dandelion root ready for roastingThe roasted dandelion roots ready for grinding

Roasted Dandelion Root Coffee Recipe

Makes 50 g (7-8 tbsp)

Ingredients
280 g freshly dug up dandelion roots (tops removed)

Dig up the roots, wash well and leave to dry in a well-ventilated area for 2-3 days (this will reduce their weight by about half). Chop small and place on a large baking tray. Preheat the oven to 180°C/fan 160°C and dry roast the roots for 30-40 minutes (turning halfway through). The roots are ready when they are dark brown. Leave to cool and store in a clean jar. Grind for drinks and other recipes as needed.

To make 1 mug of roasted dandelion coffee, grind 1 and 1/2 tbsp roots and place in a small pan with 350 ml water. Bring to a simmer and allow to gently bubble for 10 minutes. Strain and drink (or flavour with milk and sweetener and drink).

 

The ground dandelion root coffee

I teach about seasonal, edible weeds on my monthly foraging courses, with lots of tips for recipes, identification and hands on learning. Follow me on instagram or facebook to see regular posts and information, or sign up to the newsletter, oh and do tag me if you try any making this, I'd love to hear from you! @rachellambertwildfoodforaging

References and Credits

  1. Irving, M. (2009) The Forager Handbook - A guide to the edible plants of Britain

Top photo by: Jamie Mills, the rest by Rachel Lambert (copyright).

Forager Rachel Lambert lives in Penzance town

People often assume I live in the countryside with a beautiful garden, which isn't entirely true. Yes, I do live in Cornwall, 3 minutes walk from the sea, though I also live in Penzance town and have a small Cornish backyard rather than a garden. Myth broken!

I love my town house and from the moment I moved in I started carting unwanted soil from my friend's garden down to my yard. Up and down with a wheelbarrow, I carted about 20 bags of soil to fill a greatly prized wooden box. I loved having my hands in that soil, getting dirty, tired and slowly filling my 1 m x 1 m box, first with stones and gravel then with soil. My garden was born!

Forager Rachel Lambert's small box garden

How this forager grows weeds

The second thing that people often assume about me is that I am a good gardener. I am not. I am a forager, someone who is in awe of nature and benefits from her intelligent, natural growing techniques by plucking what grows wild and free in abundance. My gardening follows a similar style, or you could say that I am a lazy gardener. When my foraged soil was firmly in its new home I started to research plants that were good for wildlife as well as think about my favourite edible weeds and a little about beauty too. Beauty can be the glue that holds a functional garden together.

I was also given several plants. My preliminary box garden looked something like this;

  • Dog violets (locally grown)
  • Sweet woodruff (does well in the shade)
  • Nettles (arrived naturally)
  • Dead nettles
  • Wood sorrel (arrived naturally)
  • Various mints (curiously they disappeared within a year)
  • Cowslips (these almost disappeared in Britain in the past so good to plant them)
  • Primroses (locally grown, I love these)
  • Blackcurrant (grown locally)
  • Nasturtiums (arrived naturally)
  • Montbretia (arrived naturally)

Within a year my garden self-selected what was staying and what was going. The mint disappeared, the violets were adored and eaten by slugs (rather quickly), the blackcurrant struggled, the woodruff got frost bite and where on earth did my dead nettles go?! Meanwhile, my stinging nettles, nasturiums, primroses, wood sorrel and montbretia flourished! And so my naturalised garden was born.

Since then my blackcurrant has produced about 10 fruits (hurray!) and I have added a honeysuckle to the gang. Somehow a healthy dandelion and alexanders have crept in too - all welcome, oh, and I've slipped in a locally grown wild garlic in the shady, back corner.

Nasturium flowers   Nasturtium microphyllum and Nasturtium officinale

Loving a wild garden

I love a wild garden for many reasons, it is a lazy gardener's way - I rarely weed, instead I just allow my garden to evolve. Sometimes I grieve the loss of plants that didn't make it - I tried planting local violets twice though the slugs were just too keen. Luckily there are some successes too, right now I'm celebrating the evening scent of honeysuckle as I come through my gate into my yard.

Cultivating wild spaces is something which is close to my heart. In the UK, and world over, as our wild spaces shrink it is good to put something back and provide opportunities for 'weeds' and wild flowers to freely roam and take root. I gain small pleasures from, eventually (having plucked a few tops first for myself, for soup, cake, pakoras, or syrup) letting my stinging nettles go to flower and letting the bees and butterflies benefit. Well, that is if one or two pass-by. Butterflies numbers have drastically plummeted in the last 40 years, with 76% species in decline. As we know, bees are struggling too, and one cause is said to be loss of habitats for them to forage. Planting or allowing wild flowers to flourish, as well as avoiding the use of pesticides and insecticides in our gardens, can potentially help the bees and butterflies along.

As a forager I take care in the amount I take from the 'wild', though I do take. The opportunity to convert my bare yard into a small growing plot is my token effort to give back, and yet, my garden still gives me so much more than I give it. Time for a salad of nasturtium leaves and flowers, dandelion leaves and a little wild garlic I think, courtesy of my wild back yard garden.

Trailing plants in my garden

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