“What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” This quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson could possibly be true in the minds of those who have not studied the use of herbs for health and wellness, though, for many, a weed is a weed, with no merit other than being a nuisance in their monocultured, manicured front lawn.  For those of us that work with plants, we know the value and potential that many of the so-called “weeds” possess.

This brings us to our Herb Highlight this month, the lowly (or highly respected) dandelion, known by its Latin binomial as Taraxacum Officinale.  This little ray of sunshine is a member of the Asteraceae family or Daisy family.  It is native to Europe, Asia, and Northern Africa, though it can be found growing almost anywhere, especially in disturbed soils and soils which are deep, moist, and rich.  It can even grow as high as 12000 ft. as it does in the Himalayas.

The first recorded history of this plant was in China in 659 BCE and later in the 10th century by Arab physicians.  Next came recorded use in Welsh practices and then its use spread widely throughout Europe.  History shows that the Native American peoples of North America also used this plant for food and health-supportive properties. We also find the history of use in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurvedic Medicine, in the Czech Republic and in Austria.

Dandelion is a perennial herb with deeply toothed leaves that form a basal rosette at the base, up from which extends a stalk with a yellow, ray-like flower head attached.  The flower closes at night and during cloudy weather, only to reopen in the morning when the sun shines.  It also has a thick, dark brown taproot that appears white through the inner flesh.

Pissenlit (dandelion) from La Plante et ses Applications ornementales (1896) illustrated by Maurice Pillard Verneuil. 

Both the leaves and the roots are used to support health and wellness.  The plant has been used by herbalists to support the healthy function of the liver, gallbladder, digestive system, spleen, and kidneys. The young spring leaves, rich in minerals, especially potassium, have been used as food throughout history, whether eaten fresh in salads or steamed or cooked like spinach.  However, the leaves get quite bitter as they age through the season and become less palatable.  This bitter property makes it excellent to support and tone the digestive system and allow the liver to function more optimally.  Because of this, and due to the action on the lymphatic system, they aid the bodies’ natural detoxification processes, helping the body to eliminate wastes.  The root is more commonly used for digestive concerns and liver support and has deeper action than do the leaves.  Due to its rich mineral content, Dandelion can support healthy urination allowing the body to remove excess fluids. Dandelion is also used to bring balance to the menstrual cycle in women and can be comforting to pre-menstrual bloating, tension, and tenderness of the breast tissue. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the energetics of the plant is said to be bitter, drying, and cooling and enter the spleen, stomach, liver, kidney, and bladder meridians.

The leaves can be used as food (young green leaves), as a tea, or made into a tincture.  The root is typically used as a tincture but is also roasted and ground and can be used as a coffee alternative, by itself, or with a blend of other roasted roots (chicory, carob commonly).

Dr. Shawn Manske, ND is a registered Naturopathic Doctor in the state of Colorado. He attended the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and received his degree and initial license in Ontario where he was in clinical practice before moving to Colorado. Dr. Shawn is currently the Senior Educator and a Territory Accounts Manager for Wishgarden Herbs. He has a passion for and love of teaching herbal medicine and especially loves bitters.