Mellow Yellow: How to Make Dandelion Wine

Today on Root Simple we welcome another guest post from our Midwest correspondent Nancy Klehm:

In the past week, we Midwesterners have experienced three hard frosts – killing back the growth, that emerged too early of my grapes and hardy kiwis and zapping peach blossoms. We will see if there is any fruit onset and if my vines recover.

Meanwhile, it is dandelion wine time!

I first tasted dandelion wine when I bought a bottle of it at a folksy gift shop in the Amana Colonies (yes, Amana of the appliance fame). I had wanted something to drink at my campsite that evening. When I opened the bottle, I anticipated something more magic than what met my tongue. It was cloying yellow syrupy stuff, which resembled soft drink concentrate. I poured it out next to my tent, returning it to the earth where she could compost it. I was sure that I’d never get close to it again.

That was fifteen years ago, and now I have been drinking dandelion wine for about two years. The new stuff is stuff I’ve made myself from dandelion blossoms gathered in Chicago. I’m happy to say that it is divine. I am sure now that the colonists actually keep the good stuff in their private cabinets.

Upon mentioning “dandelion wine”, Ray Bradbury usually comes to mind. However, after I heard a radio interview with him a few years back when he passionately made a case to colonize the moon so we can ditch this trashed planet and survive as a race, I got confused. Enough said.

So the point is, I am going to tell you how to make dandelion wine. I encourage you to do this because dandelions pop up everywhere and every place. They are nearly ubiquitous pioneers in our landscapes of disturbed and deprived soils. Consumed, they are a magnificent digestive, aiding the heath and cleansing of the kidneys and liver. Amongst vitamins A, B, C and D, they have a huge amount of potassium.

As a beyond-perfect diuretic, dandelion has so much potassium that when you digest the plant, no matter how much fluid you lose, your body actually experiences a net gain of the nutrient. In other words, folks – dandelion wine is one alcohol that actually helps your liver and kidneys! Generous, sweet, overlooked dandelion…

When you notice lawns and parks spotting yellow, it’s time to gather. The general rule of thumb is to collect one gallon of flowers for each gallon of wine you want to make.

Enjoy your wandering. People will think you quaintly eccentric for foraging blossoms on your hands and knees. Note: collect blossoms (without the stem) that have just opened and are out of the path of insecticides and pesticides.

So here’s how I make dandelion wine…

I pour one gallon boiling water over one gallon dandelion flowers in a large bowl. When the blossoms rise (wait about twenty-four to forty-eight hours), I strain the yellow liquid out, squeezing the remaining liquid out of the flowers, into a larger ceramic or glass bowl. I compost the spent flowers (thanks dandelion!).

Then I add juice and zest from four lemons and four oranges, and four pounds of sugar (4-4-4 = E.Z.). Okay, now here’s what I think is the best part: I float a piece of stale bread, sprinkled with bread yeast, in the mixture. This technique is used in Appalachian and some European recipes.

Then I toss a dishtowel over it so the mixture can both breathe and the crud floating around my house stays out. I continue stirring the wine several times a day until it stops fermenting. This takes about two weeks or so.

When I am certain it has stopped “working”, I strain, bottle and cork it up and bid it farewell until months later. In fact I wait until the winter solstice, when I can revisit that sunny spring day by drinking it in.

Everlasting Flower for Colds

Dried California Pearly Everlasting. The flowers are small, about the size of a buttons on a shirt collar.

Last summer I was happy to be able to take a class on native plant use taught by Cecilia Garcia and James Adams, co-authors of Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West. One of the many things I learned in this class was that the flowers of California Pearly Everlasting, Gnaphalium californicum, aka cudweed aka rabbit tobacco, are supposed to be good for colds.

I’ve not had a chance to try it until this week. I’ve only had one cold since last summer, and that one hit so fast and hard I just sort of gave up on doing anything but riding it out. The one I have this week is more of a typical head cold, and  a good chance for a field test. And I can say that I think they helped. But I’m not sure how.

My confusion is a result of memory vs. notes. I remember James saying he takes this tea instead of Day Quill whenever he has a cold. So, having the flowers on hand, I took the tea expecting it to act like cold medicine. Because the effects are so subtle (unlike cold capsules) I didn’t think my first cup was doing anything at all–until I realized I’d stopped sneezing and constantly blowing my nose. The relief lasted for a few hours. When I started feeling crappy again, I had another cup and the symptoms retreated again.  Over the course the first day I had 3 cups. The next day, I felt much better. My symptoms were less, though I did still feel “under siege” and retreated to bed early.

During the course of that day, I dug out my class notes and discovered that Cecilia said something different than what I remembered–she said that Everlasting is an immune stimulant, and when you have a cold you’re supposed to take one cup (one!) before bed for 4 nights. It has to be 4 cups over 4 nights, even if you feel better. No more, no less. So she’s using it more like Echinacea–not as a symptom relief.  Meanwhile, random internet searches affirm that it’s good for colds, but don’t say how.

Continue reading…

Deadly Nightshade vs. Black Nightshade

I spotted the sign above at the Heirloom Festival in Sonoma. The sign made the claim that “deadly nightshade” is actually a choice edible. Unfortunately, there’s considerable confusion over the popular name “deadly nightshade.”  The plant most commonly referred to as “deadly nightshade,” is Atropa belladonna, which is a highly unpleasant and toxic hallucinogen. “Black nightshade,” Solanum nigrum, on the other hand, is edible. The potted plant below the sign was Solanum nigrum not Atropa belladonna. One must be careful when using the popular names for plants!

Solanum nigrum

To add to the confusion, Solanum nigrum is eaten and used as animal fodder all over the world, though many sources continue to describe it as toxic. As with all members of the Solanum family there’s still a great deal of superstition when it comes to toxicity. Remember that many Europeans considered tomatoes to be poisonous well into the 18th century. Even today tomato leaves, used by my Filipino neighbors as a seasoning, are still labeled by many as poisonous. An interesting article in the New York Times “Accused, Yes, but Probably Not a Killer” busts the tomato leaf toxicity myth.

Atropa belladonna – don’t munch on this one!

The confusion over the case of the alleged toxicity of Solanum nigrum may stem from our lack of  intimacy with plants in the West. The use of Solanum nigrum by indigenous peoples is actually a bit complicated. Different soil conditions can, it turns out, produce some toxic alkaloids in Solanum nigrum. Cooking eliminates the alkaloids.  Jennifer M. Edmonds and  James A. Chweya, writing for the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, describe the uses of Solanum nigrum and end up advocating for its widespread use as a cultivated food source. Here’s what they say about it’s toxicity in their book, Black nightshades, Solanum nigrum L. and related species, which you can read in Google Books,

. . . the comparable number of accounts reporting that these species [Solanum nigrum] are harmless as food and fodder sources suggest that this toxicity is variable. Indeed a chemical suvey of various members of the section Solanum reported the presence of potentially toxic alkaloids only in unripe fruits, with ripe berries and vegetative parts tacking these compounds. Shilling et al. (1992) therefore concluded that the plants are probably only poisonous to indiscriminate feeders such as livestock who might consume the whole plant. However, these plants are browsed and used as fodder for animals without any detrimental effect in some areas, and Rogers and Ogg (1981) suggested that the development of toxic levels of these alkaloids is dependent on their growth under certain conditions or in certain localities, and even on the age of the plants concerned. Other reports suggest that the amounts of poisonous ‘princinples’ vary greatly with climate, season and soil type (Cooper and Johnson 1984). It is highly probable that boiling destroys any toxicity inherent in these species; most ethonobotanical reports of their use as vegetables refer to cooking, boiling and even repeated boiling with the liquid being discarded; similar reports of the use of berries also refer to their being poisonous when uncooked or unripe. Drying, however, does not destroy the toxicity of the solamine-type alkaloids (Everist 1974). It is these glycosidal alkaloids which are responsible for the bitter taste often associated with the Solanums. 

The Solanum nigrum growing in our backyard.

A few Solanum nigrum plants popped up in the yard last month and I’ve let them grow. While I can’t say that I’m a big fan of the berries, I’ve tasted them raw and lived to tell the tale.

Nasturtium Flower and Pistachio Pesto: a story in pictures

Sorry, we don’t have a recipe for this, because we always wing it when it comes to pesto–even Erik, who is recipe dependent. You too can make it without a recipe.

Pesto is simply a blending of 5 main ingredients, which can vary widely according to season, availability and taste:

1) an aromatic herb, or blend of herbs (traditionally basil, but we use chives, parsley, mint, arugula and here, nasturtium flower–basically anything with a strong flavor. This can be stretched with some spinach or nettles for a milder flavor.)
2) a nut of some sort, toasted preferably
3) good quality shredded Parmesan cheese
4) good quality olive oil
5) raw or roasted garlic

You throw all these things in a blender, or go old school and mash them with a mortar and pestle. The proportions are intuitive. It’s hard to make bad pesto as long as your ingredients are good. Less cheese and nuts yields a lighter pesto. Less herb and more cheese and nuts makes a richer pesto. Less garlic yields a milder pesto. We use maybe 2 raw cloves per batch. It’s all good. Process the dry ingredients first, then add oil bit by bit to make a paste. Some people make a smooth paste, we leave nut chunks in. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve pesto over hot pasta, or spoon it into soup for flavor, or dip veggies in it, or thin it down and drizzle it over cooked veggies, or spread it on toasted bread, or eat it off the spoon…

Plantain for rashes

It’s hard to take a decent picture when both of your hands are covered in green slime!

 Mrs. Homegrown here:

A couple of days ago I made a mistake: I attacked a stand of rogue borage without gloves. You know how it is when you think you’re just going to make one pruning cut, and then end up hacking for an hour in a mindless frenzy? Borage is covered with irritating little hairs which made my hands and forearms itch and burn. I really should have known better.

Plantago major

Fortunately, our yard provides the cure for such indiscretions in the form of a nice patch of common plantain (Plantago major). This broad leaf plantain, as well as its narrow leaved cousin, Plantago lanceolata, are fantastic for easing the irritation of itchy rashes and bug bites. I harvest the leaves, dry them, and make them into salves for year round use, but when plantain is growing, it’s easiest to use it fresh. All you have to do is pick a leaf, chew on it a little, and rub the pulp on your skin. Really rub it so you get the green juices out. You’ll feel relief immediately.

Keep this in mind when you’re out in a park or hiking. Plantain grows everywhere–it’s a universal weed, and it’s particularly fond of lawns. Once you know what it looks like, you can find it easily.

Do any of you have a favorite natural cure for rashes or bug bites?