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Dreaded Dandelion Deserves Some Respect

Find out why dandelions are more than just a pretty flower.

By Doug Oster
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

After a particularly long day in the garden cleaning up beds, moving perennials and picking handful after handful of flowers, dusk arrived and the armchair beckoned. My aching back was greeted by a television pitchman trying to sell me a fresh green lawn, built through chemistry. He promised a lush paradise and death to all weeds, in particular the dreaded dandelion.

But this much-maligned plant is actually an incredible source of antioxidants, minerals, vitamins and yes, even beauty.

It's been said that a weed is simply a plant that wants to grow where people want something else. In blaming nature, people mistake the culprit. Weeds are people's idea, not nature's.

And for many of those people, culture demands the perfect golf course lawn. But the question becomes: Do you really want your kids and pets rolling around on the stuff you spread, not to mention the poor songbirds?

There are ways to get a nice lawn without using poisons. Do you know of any plant that can out-grow grass? If you thatch, aerate and let your grass grow long (2-1/2 to 3-1/2 inches), it will beat out most weeds. A good organic high-nitrogen fertilizer like Milorganite, applied at the recommended rate, will do wonders.

There are other non-toxic controls for weeds. One is corn gluten, a byproduct from milling corn. It works well as a natural herbicide for broadleaf plants (like dandelions) and is completely safe for people and animals.

For more and more gardeners, the answer is a quilted lawn. That's what Pittsburgh's Group Against Smog and Pollution calls grass where weeds are permitted to grow. In that lawn, dandelions thrive.

Peter Gail of Cleveland finds it amusing that we are walking over one of the most nutritious foods on the planet. Gail, author of "The Dandelion Celebration: A Guide to Unexpected Cuisine," explains that the plant contains more beta-carotene than carrots, more potassium than bananas, more lecithin than soybeans, more iron than spinach and loads of vitamins A, C and E, thiamin, riboflavin, calcium, phosphorus and magnesium.

Gail, who holds a doctorate from Rutgers University in botany, adds that the plant contains "74 different nutrients, all the trace minerals the body needs and in the right quantities and all the major minerals."

His introduction to eating dandelions, however, was anything but pleasant.

"I picked some leaves while the plant was in flower and bit into it. I couldn't understand why someone would eat something so bitter," he says.

The trick, he learned later, was to harvest the greens before the flower buds appear.

Gail says if your dandelions have already started to flower, cut them back and harvest what grows back. It won't be as good as the early harvest, but it's close. He grows dandelions on the edge of his raised beds in the vegetable garden. The plants taste best when grown in good garden soil, he says. And he reminds others to pick dandelions only from an area they know has not been sprayed with herbicides.

I decided to give it a try. My vegetable garden has plenty of dandelions. I chose the appropriate plants and harvested them, chopping the leaves and sauteing them in butter and garlic. A pinch of salt later and the dandelions were ready for tasting. They had a wonderfully intense flavor, slightly bitter, but in a good way.

In his research, Gail discovered recipes to mask the bitterness of the greens, some with tomato sauce and others with sugar.

Dandelions also feed other creatures. The flowers produce nectar that attracts butterflies, bees and many birds.

In another time, this plant would be considered a treasure.

Give dandelions a chance. They are a misunderstood and wonderful part of nature.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, SHNS.com.)

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