We've been busy harvesting dandelions from Torre Abbey Gardens near Torquay to make Sparkling Dandelion Wine.
We like to call dandelions ‘nature’s gold’. Not just because of the colour, but because of the richness it provides to both gardeners and wildlife. We reckon everybody should try and find room for a few dandelions in their garden. They are just as beautiful as any sunflower with their bright golden flowerheads and attractive serrated foliage.
Indeed, in some countries, particularly in northern Europe and Scandinavia, going to see the stunning meadows full of dandelions in spring, is akin to the Japanese appreciation and celebration of cherry blossom. (Sakura)
The wildlife love dandelions too. Leave a few flowers in your garden and it will attract pollinating insects, which will in addition, turn their attention to pollinating your fruit trees and vegetables. The seeds and nectar from these 'weeds' are an important source of food for birds, butterflies, bees, beetles etc, while creatures such as rabbits adore the nutritious foliage.
However, perhaps, best of all, is the flowers make a delicious sparkling dandelion wine.
Did you know? – Dandelions are so called due to their jagged-looking foliage which looks like a lion’s tooth. The name is derived from the French for Dent de Lion. However, that isn't the only similarity with a lion, as it is said the flowers look like the golden mane of the male.
Although dandelions flower sporadically throughout the year, Mid-March to Mid-April is the main season for picking, when fields, meadows and roadsides turn bright gold with their bright flower heads which sparkle in the spring sunshine.
Did you know? The botanical name for dandelion is Taraxacum officinale, with the genus of the name being derived from the Arabic word ‘tarakhshaqun’ meaning ‘bitter herb’ although we think the foliage tastes delicious.
Seeking out dandelions
It may look as if there are thousands of dandelions out in mid spring, but it is harder than you think to find suitable ones for harvesting and making dandelion wine.
Firstly, many of the ones you see will be flowering on the sides of roads, and we don’t want to pick any flowers that have been contaminated with car exhausts or other pollution.
Secondly, most places where you see them in public spaces and on the sides of footpaths are also popular with dog walkers and therefore we avoid picking in these places too.
Finally, many of the dandelions in fields have been sprayed or fed with artificial fertilizers, so again we avoid picking these flowers.
Thankfully, we have found the perfect place to pick dandelions. The organic gardens at Torre Abbey Gardens near Torquay. These are organic gardens and free from dogs, meaning the dandelions are pure and clean. The Head Gardener of Torre Abbey, Ali Marshall, allows dandelions to flourish in some of the ‘wilder’ areas of the garden. Thankfully, there are hundreds for us to pick, although we always ensure we leave plenty behind for the wildlife to enjoy too.
Its not all fine and dandy
Harvesting dandelions is back-breaking work as we spend the day bent over double picking the beautiful golden flowerheads from meadows, but we are happy to suffer for our art.
Another downside of harvesting dandelions, are the stained hands. It took me ages to wash the golden marks off my hands.
Once the dandelions have been picked, they need to have the green ‘ball’ just behind the flower head removed, as this can cause the sparkling dandelion wine to taste bitter.
And you have to be quick in processing the flowers after you have picked them, as the flowers quickly close up.
We pick all our dandelions on sunny days (not always easy in England). The reason for picking on sunny days is that the flowers are out in full, and there is more pollen and nectar, which will be reflected in the flavour of the wine.
Did you know? Dandelion flowers are a well known diuretic, and the French word for a dandelion is pissenlit, which means 'Wet the bed''.
Dandelion flower heads, with the bitter green balls at the back of the flowers having been removed. They are floating in water, waiting to be turned into wine.
Masters of survival
When you consider how versatile and adaptive, they are to their environment, it should come as no surprise that scientists believe dandelions have been around for over 30 million years, and have now expanded from Asia, to colonise much of the planet.
Dandelions are remarkable plants, and if the grass where they grow has been mowed, they will flower on shorter stalks, making them truly one of the cleverest and most adaptable of plants. This means, next time the grass is cut, the mower blades won’t remove the flower heads, enabling them to produce seed and reproduce. Their seed heads can float over 8km on the wind, meaning they can always find a new location to extend their family. And to reproduce, they don’t need to be pollinated. Their seed is cleverly designed, with each one attached to a ‘parachute’ to transport it further away and help it spread.
Furthermore, if you try and pull out their long tap root and it breaks into pieces, all those pieces will germinate to form lots more plants. If you add the roots to your compost, they will also continue to grow.
All of this adapting and growing is hard work, therefore dandelions conserve energy by closing its flowers at night, and only opening them in the morning once the sun is out.
And although in the past, dandelions have been persecuted remorselessly by gardeners as they attempt to remove them from their finely, manicured, smooth lawns, they have many uses. Their roots can be made into coffee or a root beer, leaves can be used in salads, and the flowers make delicious teas or wines. In addition, the flowers have also been used as a dye for colouring. They’ve also been used in medicine as a diuretic and to treat liver and kidney problems and other infections.
Not only do dandelions smell perfumed and slightly citrussy, lending them wonderfully to using in our sparkling wine, but they are also rich in vitamin A, C and D, as well as calcium and iron. And when we pick them in the glorious spring sunshine, we get a healthy dose of vitamin D from the sun rays too.
So, next time you are out in your garden about to eradicate a dandelion plant, consider leaving it for both yourself and the wildlife to enjoy. There are so many benefits to this glorious harbinger of spring.
As the golden flowers dance in the warm breeze, reflected in the sky by a warm golden orb, it will fill you with a warm, golden moment of joy, akin to Wordsworth coming across a host of golden daffodils. This is a golden opportunity to welcome in a new golden age, the age of the dandelion.