This story was originally published in May 2016.
FORT KENT, Maine — To paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield, dandelions get no respect.
To many, the yellow flower — one of the earliest to bloom in the spring — is considered nothing more than an unsightly weed that must be eradicated from lawns and gardens at all costs. That wasn’t always the case, according the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.
“Only in the 20th century did humans decide that the dandelion was a weed,” Anita Sanchez writes on MOFGA’s website. “Before the invention of lawns, the golden blossoms and lion-toothed leaves were more likely to be praised as a bounty of food, medicine and magic [and] gardeners used to weed out the grass to make room for the dandelions.”
But the humble yellow flower is starting to make a comeback, according to MOFGA, with people familiarizing themselves with the plant’s medicinal and culinary characteristics. For people such as Marilyn Ouellette of Fort Kent, having ready access to dandelions is like grocery shopping in her own backyard.
“I’m out there gathering [dandelions] as soon as the sun warms things up and they start coming out,” Ouellette said. “I wait all winter for this.”
Ouellette, who grew up in the St. John Valley, said dandelions were a big part of many families’ spring diets. And for her, they still are.
“They taste so good,” she said. “The season is so short, you have to get out there and get them while you can.”
Dandelion foragers such as Ouellette know to pick only the flowers’ new, tender green leaves before the plant flowers.
“Once the flowers blossom, the leaves get very bitter,” she said. “The younger the plant, the better it tastes.”
Gathering begins once the spring sun warms the ground enough for the dandelions to start growing, according to Ouellette. At that point, she said she has about two weeks to pick a year’s supply.
“I try to pick enough so we can have at least one meal a month with them all year long,” she said. “They freeze quite well.”
To collect her dandelion greens, Ouellette heads out armed with a knife, which she jabs into the ground at the base of the plant to cut it off at the root. She then shakes off as much dirt and detritus as possible before bringing them home and washing them again outside under the house. The final rinse is inside. Then they’re ready to cook.
“I cook them with lard,” Ouellette said with a laugh. “Because everything’s better with lard.”
Some people use bacon, she said, but either way she will brown the lard — or bacon — and then add a bit of water before adding the dandelion greens, some onions, salt and pepper.
“It’s like heaven, that first meal of dandelions,” she said. “I wait all year for it.”
She’s not the only one waiting.
For Maine’s pollinators — including honeybees — the dandelion flowers are among the first sources of natural food.
“Honeybees need the dandelions to build up their stores and broods in the spring,” according to Richard McLaughlin, master beekeeper and president of the Maine State Beekeepers Association. “We really encourage people to leave them alone and not see them as a weed but something that is really only around for a short time and then they can have their green lawns.”
According to MOFGA, dandelions are actually good for lawns, as the flowers’ roots loosen and aerate hard-packed soil. The plants are good for people, too, with MOFGA calling it “a green and growing first aid kit.”
According to the website, dandelions have been used for everything from removing toxins from the bloodstream to improving digestive function. Dandelions are also high in vitamins A and C and contain iron, calcium and potassium, making them among the more nutritious wild Maine edibles.
Not bad for a common weed.
NOTE: Marilyn Ouellette is the sister-in-law of BDN reporter Julia Bayly, who has relied on her in the past for information on traditional St. John Valley foods and foraging for edibles.