The dandelion — noxious weed or unappreciated herb?

By Susan Johnson
Copy Editor

Living — and specifically eating — “green” just got more difficult if you live in the Chicago area. As John Kass reported in the Friday, June 28, Chicago Tribune, John Taris, a retired man, was recently fined $75 for the “crime” of picking dandelion greens in a forest preserve.

Taris comes from a Greek family culture where it was an accepted tradition to harvest “horta,” as they called it, as part of their diet. But it was unacceptable to the Cook County Forest Preserve District, which said it was illegal to remove the dandelions from LaBagh Woods, where a Cook County Forest Preserve officer apprehended Taris.

Though much maligned as a noxious weed, dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) has a long history of use both as a food and for medicinal properties. Properly classified as an herb, it is so versatile that every part of the plant can be used. Though not native to North America, it was brought over by European immigrants and quickly found a niche in the environment, where it has been spreading ever since.

Numerous articles on the Internet and elsewhere tout the benefits of dandelion. As Peter Gail wrote in an extensive article, “According to the USDA Bulletin #8, ‘Composition of Foods’ (Haytowitz and Mathews 1984), dandelions rank in the top four green vegetables in overall nutritional value. Minnick, in ‘Gardening for Better Nutrition,’ ranks them out of all vegetables, including grains, seeds, and greens, as tied for ninth best. According to these data, dandelions are nature’s richest green vegetable source of beta-carotene, from which Vitamin A is created, and the third richest source of Vitamin A of all foods, after cod-liver oil and beef liver! They also are particularly rich in fiber, potassium, iron, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and the B vitamins, thiamine and riboflavin, and are a good source of protein.”

Some particular benefits of dandelion are its ability to reduce inflammations of the liver; keep blood pressure down, reducing the risk of strokes; assist in weight loss; high fiber slows down the digestive process so that food remains in the stomach longer; B vitamins help reduce stress; lowering blood sugar; pectin in the plant is anti-diarrheal and acts as a gastrointestinal detoxifying herb. Pectin also lowers cholesterol and, combined with Vitamin C, can lower it even more. Dandelion is a good source of both pectin and Vitamin C. It also contains choline, which helps improve memory.

Clinical and laboratory research, as reported by Hobbs (1985), shows a doubling of bile output with leaf extracts, and a quadrupling of bile output with root extract. Bile assists with the emulsification, digestion and absorption of fats, in alkalinizing the intestines, and preventing putrefaction. Dandelion has diuretic effects nearly as strong as the drugs Furosemide and Lasix, prescribed for congestive heart failure and cirrhosis of the liver, with none of the serious side effects, as reported by Romanian scientists.

In 1979, a Japanese patent was filed for a freeze-dried warm-water extract of dandelion root for anti-tumor use. Administration of the extract markedly inhibited growth of carcinoma cells within one week after treatment.

Local classes and comments

From time to time, Angelic Organics Learning Center in Caledonia, Ill., offers a course called “Eat Your Weeds! An Introduction to Wild Edibles.” The merits of dandelions, along with other wild edible plants, are explored, and recipes are offered.

Jessie Crow Mermel, an instructor at Angelic Organics, told The Rock River Times: “We do offer these wild edible classes at Angelic Organics Learning Center. We have another one coming up Aug. 25. It’s ‘Wild Edibles of Late Summer.’ We pretty much focus on a lot of invasive plants. It’s funny with that [Chicago Tribune] article — here he was picking dandelions, which are a non-native, invasive species in the forest preserve. In our earlier class, people were harvesting garlic mustard, which is a big problem in the forest. A lot of these ‘weeds’ are more nutritious than some of the lettuce [sold in grocery stores].

This class we have coming up will focus on sumac, bee balm and elderberries,” Mermel added. “We will learn about medicinal properties of plants. The class also focuses on how to harvest responsibly, so that could mean everything from not taking too much. Then, also, we are not to pick any edibles from any area that might be sprayed with pesticides. In addition to going out into the fields and educating about these plants, we will go back and make teas and jellies and [using] some of these herbs, flowers and berries.

I would like to say that we have so much edible food in our public areas … it could put a dent in the hunger problem,” Mermel added. “There does need to be a balance … if everybody has the mentality [of taking], that will diminish the quality of the plants in the forest preserve. But as long as people are educated, they will know to leave enough so that it can reproduce and not damage the native population. It is a great food source. There is a Foraging Food Map in Europe, Australia and New Zealand. There is a Google map that shows fruit trees on public land and ideas and recipes for foraging.”

Outcome of the court case

As for John Taris? He and his wife live on Social Security and do not have any extra money to spare. As reported in the ABA Journal, he was represented in court pro bono by a Chicago-area lawyer. His case had become national and international news, and he had gained considerable support from the public. However, the judge was unsympathetic and told him that he’d have to pay the $75 fine — plus $200 in court costs.

Incredulous at this turn of events, Taris went to the hearing officer and pled for mercy, explaining that he couldn’t afford the ticket, let alone court costs. The hearing officer then called back Taris’ lawyer and issued a new order waiving court costs, but keeping the fine.

Pete Garbis, the pro bono lawyer, said he’d never seen anything like it and thought the whole case was “bizarre.” He also said that no criminal court judge would enforce a law that frivolous.

So, consider the lowly dandelion. It gets no respect — except in a court of law.

From the July 31-Aug. 6, 2013, issue

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