Spring and Dandelions

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, March 10, 2000

It wouldn't be spring without dandelions. But what is a welcome sight for some, is an enemy and profit opportunity for others.

"The dandelion is one of the most useful and important herbs for treating cancer patients," according to a certified nutritionist and clinical master herbalist from Norwalk.

Yet the lawn care industry maintains that we should dedicate ourselves to killing dandelions with 2,4-D or some other broadleaf plant killer. Unfortunately, 2,4-D has been shown in National Cancer Institute studies to increase lymphomas and other cancers in humans and has also been connected to cancer in dogs.

It's a measure of our culture's rampant disconnection from nature that there's a full-scale attack on the dandelion (which might treat cancer) using an herbicide which causes cancer.

I've known for a long time that dandelion leaves are a very tasty source of vitamin A, potassium and calcium. They're delicious as a snack, in a salad or sauteed in a stir-fry. Their flavor is best in the early spring before the beautiful yellow flowers appear.

Those bright yellow flowers make a wonderful wine. We usually produce several gallons from the many blooms around our house. About one gallon of flowers makes a gallon of wine.

Dandelion root is a diuretic. As such, it may be useful for premenstrual syndrome, high blood pressure and congestive heart failure. It is said to be good for the liver and to help prevent gallstones, too.

Dandelions also provide important benefits to the ecosystem. Honeybees and at least 92 other insects collect its nectar and/or pollen. Birds are fond of its seeds. Its deep tap roots aerate the soil, bring up nutrients and are valuable to earthworms.

Yet, even after several decades of defending the dandelion from ignorant and toxic attacks by lawn chemical producers, distributors, advertisers and applicators, my appreciation of this so-called "weed" is still growing. Just how and when did the dandelion become our dreaded enemy?

Greed and ignorance are most likely to blame. Those who made fortunes providing the government with the chemical weapon Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, wanted to continue to profit from selling their poisons when the war ended. They converted their manufacturing facilities to civilian use, and the dandelion, a standout with its bright and cheery yellow flowers, seemed like a good target for 2,4-D, one half of Agent Orange. Unfortunately, in their push for profits, herbicide manufacturers and retailers have used simple-minded advertisements to brainwash a whole generation into believing that dandelions are the enemy.

Meanwhile, drug companies comb the world's rainforests in search of some magic substance which they can isolate and duplicate in their laboratories, and then sell to cancer patients. In the long run, however, it's in our best interest to encourage understanding of local healing plants and knowledge of their use.

This spring, reject industry brainwashing and "Just Say No" to herbicides! Learn about the beauties and benefits of weeds, particularly dandelions.

If you'd like organic lawn care information, go to Northeast Organic Farming Association of Connecticut (NOFA/CT) and select New NOFA Landcare Information, or send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Dandelions, WSHU, 5151 Park Avenue, Fairfield, CT 06432.

My dandelion wine recipe follows.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

Recipe for Dandelion Wine

Winemaking is a craft and an art that can be very successful with careful attention to cleanliness and proper airlocks in the fermenting vessels. Winemaking supplies are becoming more widely available. There are two stores in Monroe, CT. Sometimes Italian neighborhood markets carry them. I buy equipment from The Purple Foot, Box 116, Main Street, Waldoboro, Maine 04572. I've learned a lot from the book, First Steps in Winemaking by C. J. J. Berry.

This is a basic recipe which has produced nice wine for us for three years. It is my adaptation of Euell Gibbons recipe in Stalking the Wild Asparagus. I'm sure there are many ways to alter or improve on it.

Pick the flowers after the dew has dried on a sunny day. I try to avoid the stems, but usually use the little green parts around the flowers stay on.

For each gallon of wine, pour one gallon of boiling water over one gallon of freshly picked flowers in a glass, stainless steel or food-grade plastic container. Cover and let cool.

After three days, strain the juice from the flowers with a jelly cloth or strainer, and put the liquid (basically a strong dandelion flower tea) into a stainless steel kettle.

For each gallon, add:

  1. Two and one half cups of sugar; the more sugar, the more alcohol, up to the level at which the yeast dies. Above that, the wine gets sweeter. We prefer a drier wine with less alcohol. You could use as little as 2 pounds of sugar per gallon, or a much as three pounds(which is likely to produce a sweet wine).
  2. A small ginger root (or a big chunk if you like) cut into pieces (organic if possible)
  3. The thin peels of three oranges and one lemon, or some other combination of citrus fruits. Use organic fruit to avoid fungicides on the skins. The juice will be added later.

Boil this mix gently for 20-30 minutes to draw the flavor out of the ginger and citrus peels.

Pour the mixture into a fermenting vessel (glass or food-grade plastic). When the liquid cools to room temperature, add the juice of the citrus fruits and one package of wine yeast. I use a Pasteur champagne yeast. One teaspoon of wine nutrient mix per gallon will help make up for the difference between dandelions and grapes as food for the yeast. I sometimes also add a teaspoon of an acid blend made for wine. Other recipes use 1/2 pound of raisins and 6 ounces of strong black tea to provide extra nutrients.

At this point, the container needs to be covered to keep out stray organisms, but in a way which allows the carbon dioxide the yeast produces to leave the container. Otherwise, you'll have a literal explosion as a result of the yeast's population explosion and the buildup of its waste gas. There needs to be space between the liquid and the cover in any case because the mixture will froth up as the yeast get busy.

Here, a few pieces of inexpensive equipment will tend to improve your success. An air lock works well to allow the carbon dioxide to escape while keeping other organisms out.

Keep at a temperature of 50-75 degrees F. After the initial (vigorous and messy) fermentation with the fruit and ginger slows down in about a week, rack the young wine into another bottle. This procedure simply means using a siphon to draw the liquid off while leaving behind the residue on the bottom and as much of the peels and ginger as possible. Fill up the bottle to about one inch below the air lock. It is important to have as little oxygen above the wine as possible.

The wine can be racked again if there is much sediment on the bottom. I keep the wine in this secondary stage for about six months before bottling, to make sure that the fermentation is finished.

Once bottled, enjoy it soon or keep it in a cool dark place. Dandelion wine is especially enjoyable in the winter.

This page and its contents are copyright © 2000 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.