I got the bug for foraging wild foods and mushrooms when I was in my mid-20s. At first, I went on some organized forays with a teacher and naturalist, "The Wildman" Steve Brill. He led groups through New York City parks. I continued seeking out wild foods and medicinal herbs, in part to enjoy nature and solitude and to spend time hiking with friends.
In hindsight, anytime I went on an herb walk, almost without fail, the guide would bring up dandelion. I'd bet most herbalists would agree it's one of the first plants they learned about.
Dandelions get little respect from society. We spray for them, wantonly step on them and dig them up.
What if we knew, however, that our next set of tires may be made of latex from dandelion roots, or that Canadian researchers have received more than $200,000 to study the cancer-fighting effects of dandelion?
During and after World War II, when there were shortages of rubber for the war effort and manufacturing, the United States, England and the Soviet Union cultivated "Russian" dandelion, Taraxacum kok-saghyz, for rubber. Germany also grew it.
Some farmers in the Rogue Valley are growing dandelion, along with other plants generally considered weeds — including stinging nettle, lamb's quarter and purslane — for their health benefits.
Researchers are growing dandelion at a test plot in Ohio in a joint venture between Ford Motor Co. and Ohio State University. According to a statement from Ford, "Dandelions have the potential to serve as a great natural alternative to synthetic rubber in our products."
Because synthetic rubber comes from petroleum, and natural rubber is susceptible to blight, market vagaries and supply disruptions, having a homegrown rubber source isn't a bad idea. Bridgestone and a Dutch tire company also are hot for dandelion.
The Canadian researchers looking at dandelion's anti-cancer properties are focusing on dandelion root's effects on leukemia. They've found that dandelion-root extract, even in tea, appears to induce apoptosis, an organized death of cancer cells.
Dandelion root traditionally has been classified as a "liver herb," and studies show the mildly bitter leaves can protect the liver against the damaging effects of acetaminophen.
The root helps digestion by increasing secretions and helping to maintain populations of colonic microflora, best known as probiotics. Dandelion root contains unusual sugars that nourish probiotic microorganisms, which in turn support our resistance to disease.
The best time to eat dandelion greens is before the plants flower in the spring, though the flowers are edible, too. A cup of greens contains significant amounts of vitamins A and C and about 200 milligrams of heart-friendly potassium.
Dandelion is gently diuretic. It has the dual advantage of increasing urination without depleting potassium. The connection is important because potassium loss from use of certain blood-pressure medications — thiazide diuretics, commonly called "water pills" —— is associated with the development of diabetes. Additionally, low potassium levels can lead to fatigue, muscle cramps, constipation and arrhythmias. As a result, doctors often recommend potassium-rich bananas or oranges as part of a whole-foods diet for people taking these drugs.
Soon enough, there may be a lot more riding on dandelion than we ever thought.
Michael Altman is a nutritionist at Ventana Wellness and teaches at Southern Oregon University. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.