Creative Commons License photo credit: jans canon

Picking of the Green:  A Slovenian Spring Tradition

By Sylvia P. Onusic, PhD

One of the first greens to come up in the Spring is Dandelion. Although most gardeners spend their time trying to rid themselves of this weed, Dandelion,  or Taraxacum officinale, was brought to the New World by English settlers as a garden green to be cultivated and used as in herbal medicine as well.

I was in the garden yesterday picking Dandelion. The best method is to make a cross cut directly under the plant with a paring knife, so that it comes with part of the root intact. This assures easier cleaning. I learned about the dandelion from my Dad, who was my traditional foods teacher. We kids wondered why, at least once a year in the Spring, he went out and picked the greens, so carefully cleaned them, then prepared a huge salad accompanied by cut up hard boiled eggs, potatoes, chopped onion, with a cider vinegar and oil dressing.   He said that he learned to eat dandelion from his mother, a Slovenian immigrant to the US. Of course we were skeptical, because we knew about the reputation of the “weed” but sat down to eat it nevertheless. It was a wonderful, slightly bitter, yet satisfying meal.  And we felt good afterwards. He like to serve it with liver.

We hear about Spring tonic and I figured this dandelion tradition was just that. I decided to find out just what was behind the folk wisdom that went into the picking and eating of the dandelion, called “regrat” in Slovenian language.

The window for picking and eating dandelion is a short one, because once the flowers appeared, the dandelion was no longer used for food, although it can be cultivated. If I was lucky, if I got one, and maybe two, pickings per year. Of course, I could buy organic dandelion most of the year in the supermarket, but that didn’t satisfy the localvore in me.  And the supermarket variety didn’t have the crunch and taste of the original wildcrafted.

For those who would like to try this dish, a word of advice- don’t  pick dandelion in an area that is frequented by pets  because animals using that area for a potty place changes the mineralization of the soil. Also you don’t want to pick dandelion in an area that is sprayed with chemicals. If your yard or garden does not fit the bill, meadows, woods and fields might be the place. Rinse the greens with several waters before cleaning. The ideal handling of the dandelion would be to put it in a large stainless steel bowl or pot outside and do the rinsings there because some soil can be involved.

According to the USDA, dandelions rank in the top 4 green vegetables in overall nutritional value. Dandelions are nature’s richest green vegetable source of beta carotene and outstanding source of vitamin K1. According to nutrition studies, dandelion supplies modest amounts of   magnesium, phosphorus, copper, iron, potassium and manganese, as well as fiber (inulin), vitamins B6, C, E, (Alpha Tocopherol), thiamin, riboflavin, folate, and boron. Research from Russia and Eastern Europe shows that dandelion is also rich in vitamin D. Despite the fact that it does not contain large amounts of vitamin C, it has been used successfully to treat scurvy, which is caused by lack of vitamin C.

All parts of the Dandelion are used. Its healing properties have been documented back to the 1500’s. Dandelion beer, juice, dried root, wine from the flowers, are some of the products traditionally made from dandelion. It was traditionally used for problems of the stomach, kidney, liver congestion and constipation and  a standard in many formularies.

But as a digestive, it is unequaled among herbs and plants. The mildly bitter component, like wormwood, causes bile to be released. Bile is necessary for digestion of foods, especially fats. In the lab, dandelion raised the secretion of bile by over 50%.. Dandelion is know to specifically promote the health of the liver and gall bladder. Research shows that dandelion aids in recovery from liver disease, including hepatitis.

Folk plant wisdom, or ethnobotany, is an evolutionary product. People foraged in the woods and fields for foods they knew by tradition were good for them. Their bodies “told” them what they needed to eat to be healthy. The lowly dandelion certainly proves to be a powerhouse of nutrition, just what is needed after a long and dark winter.

Mother Nature at its best.  Happy Spring!

Sylvia P. Onusic, Ph.D

Sylvia P. Onusic, Ph.D

Sylvia P. Onusic holds a PhD in Health Education and Nutrition. She has completed all coursework to qualify for Registered Dietitian. She is also a certified nutrition teacher in Pennsylvania and has taught nutrition in local high schools and on the university level. She is a member of the American Society for Nutrition, PASA- Pennsylvania Sustainable Agriculture, and Weston A Price Foundation.

Sylvia will be speaking at the upcoming Raw Milk Symposium, on Raw Milk Perspectives in Europe.

This second international Raw Milk Symposium is coming up April 10, 2010 in Wisconsin. Click on this link, rawmilksymposium.org for more information and to register to attend.

Visit the Hartke is Online! resources page for more herbs and teas.