American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson asked, “What is a weed?” He answered, “A plant’s whose virtue has yet to be discovered.”As a child, I learned dandelions are not just any weed. In the Toronto neighbourhood where I grew up, dandelion flowers were coveted by Italian widows. Around the corner from my childhood home there was an abandoned lot where each June dandelions popped up. The widows, dressed entirely in black, flocked to the lot, plucking the yellow flowers. “What are they doing?” I asked my Mom. “They are going to make dandelion wine,” she answered.
Dandelion comes to North America via European settlers. Whether as a weed hiding amongst seeds for gardens or whether it was brought intentionally as a medicinal plant, is not clear. I think it was probably both, understanding the nature of dandelions. The French have a particular fondness for dandelion having given dandelion its name. Being a common green in French salads, an imaginative child must have said to her mother, “The jagged edge of the leaves look like lion’s teeth”, or in French “dente de lion”. The name took and became today’s dandelion. But it is the Latin name for dandelion that tells the story, Taraxacum officinalis. Taraxos is Latin for disorder and akos means remedy. The second word officinalis refers to the fact that dandelion was stored in the herbalist’s apothecary, not in her garden.
For centuries in Europe, dandelion was considered a remedy for every disorder of the body. As times passes, herbs fall into and out of fashion. So it came to pass for dandelion. Its place in the apothecary diminished and it became known primarily for its diuretic action. It causes one to pass large amounts of water. Many herbs are diuretic, parsley, celery seed, corn silk and nettles, just to name a few. But as a diuretic, dandelion has always maintained a special place. Diuretics cause a depletion of potassium. Potassium is carried out of the body on the fluid. Dandelion leaf is so high in potassium; it actually increases potassium levels while providing a diuretic effect.
I am originally trained in the European tradition of herbal medicine. In this tradition, the dandelion’s root is generally used for sluggish livers while the leaf is reserved for eliminating excess fluid. Therefore, the root goes into formulas for gallstones, jaundice, constipation, chronic skin disorders and PMS. The leaf is used in premenstrual bloating, high blood pressure and congestive heart failure. Today, it is popular in weight loss pills.
However, in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the root and leaf have been used together for centuries to help remove toxins from the body via the liver. Enter modern day science. Research into the effect of dandelion leaf and root on the liver have shown the Chinese are onto a good thing. In the liver there are two pathways which clear toxins from the body. In the first pathway, toxins are bound with other chemicals which ferry them onto the second pathway. In the second pathway the toxins are rendered harmless and are mixed with bile to facilitate their elimination from the body. Research has shown that dandelion’s root ushers the toxins through the first pathway and onto the second. Dandelion leaf pushes the toxins along their journey by enhancing its passage through the second pathway. In this way, when combined the leaf and root of dandelion boost the liver’s ability to remove toxins from the body.
The Cherokee people have a saying that goes like this, Each tree, shrub and herb, down to the very grasses and mosses, agreed to furnish a remedy for some one of the diseases named, and each said: I shall appear to help man when he calls upon me in his need. In some ways, I think the cheerful, abundant dandelion may be a plant for today’s world.
No matter how many pesticides are thrown at the dandelion, it thrives. Bold dandelion maybe the plant that can help modern day livers cope with the chemical stew that mingles with water, soil and air. Dandelions might be the plant that supports the adjustment to this new chemical reality.