CheapyKeen

Exploring ideas for affordable, sustainable, enjoyable living.

Something for Nothing; or, Your Friend the Dandelion (updated 6/10/13)

Depending where you live, your lawn is now, or soon will be, sparkling with a veritable galaxy of sunny dandelions.

Lucky you!

What we so often dismiss as a weed, the humble dandelion, is an herb of great generosity. And they are abundant and since few people know what a treasure they are, they won’t mind letting you harvest in their yard. I won’t delve into its many medicinal uses here, but suffice to say that all parts of the plant are useful and edible*–although if you’re a supertaster like me, you will find the roots and leaves horribly, unbearably, immediately-vomit-inducingly bitter.

From botanical.com. A proper dandelion has only one flower per stalk, with all the leaves at the base of the stalk.

From botanical.com. A proper dandelion (Taraxacum officinale is shown here) has only one flower per stalk, with all the leaves at the base of the stalk.

Three things about harvesting dandelions: (1) You want to find a field or yard that is not sprayed with chemicals, for obvious reasons. The further from a roadway the better too, since plants get covered with pollutants. (2) Don’t harvest all the dandelions! A good rule of thumb is to take only about 10% of them; but dandelions are forgiving and would probably let you take more. But remember, you want dandelions to come back next year, and they can’t do that if you don’t leave some flowers to turn into seed-heads. (Also you don’t get to later blow the seeds off and make a wish.) For some purposes (e.g., the infused oil I describe below), you can pick a couple dandelions a day and add them, if there aren’t a lot at one time. (3) Pretty much everyone knows what a dandelion looks like, but there are a few species with very similar looking flowers, so pay attention to the rest of the plant–while there are hundreds of species of dandelion, they all have a basal rosette of leaves and only one flower per stalk. The stalk is smooth, hollow, and oozes a milky white latex when broken. The leaves usually have a zigzag silhouette.

Among the many things you can make with dandelions are syrup, infused oil/salve, tea, tincture, and wine. Below are recipes for infused oil/salve and syrup:

Dandelion Infused Oil/Salve

  • Dandelion flowers
  • Oil (e.g., olive, coconut, sunflower, almond, jojoba)
  • Beeswax (for salve)

Dandelion oil is a soothing and warming liniment for sore muscles, helping them to relax and ease pent-up tension. It’s also a gorgeous yellow that makes you feel like you’re walking on sunshine.

Pick some dandelions and remove the stems (the green base of the flower is fine). Dandelions absorb and hold on to lots of moisture, so let them wilt/dry overnight. Put them in a jar and pour in enough oil to just cover the flowers; cover with a paper towel or cheesecloth and secure with a rubberband–you want air to be able to circulate. You’ll want to use an oil that is easily absorbed by the skin, such as good quality olive, coconut, almond, sunflower, or jojoba. Leave the jar in a sunny window for 4-6 weeks.

Alternatively, you can gently heat the oil and flowers in a bain marie (or a glass measuring cup in a pan of water) and let them simmer for a few hours. This is quicker, but heat can destroy essential nutrients in the flowers and the oil, so it’s not ideal.

Discard the oil if it develops mold or smells rancid. Letting the dandelions wilt beforehand helps prevent this.

Strain the flowers out using muslin or cheesecloth (or at least line a strainer with paper towel, though this method is sloooooow) and squeeze to get as much oil as possible. If you want to stop with an infused oil, you’re done!

To make a salve (same as a balm or ointment), you will add beeswax to the infused oil.

Heat the wax in a bain marie or your trusty cauldron measuring cup in a pan until liquefied. Add the dandelion oil, stir to blend, and remove from the heat right away. The usual ratio is 3 parts oil to 1 part beeswax, but you can vary this if you want a looser or firmer salve. If it turns out too hard, re-melt everything and add some more of whatever oil you used. If it’s too thick, re-melt and add a little more beeswax.

Pour into containers (glass jars or tins work best–any plastic that could melt in contact with hot liquid is right out) and allow to cool.

Dandelion Syrup

  • 1 part dandelion flowers
  • 1 part sweetener (sugar or honey)
  • Lemon juice (optional)
  • Water

Again you’ll be removing the stems from the dandelions.

Place in a pan with water that you consider potable–i.e., filtered, if your tap water is nasty–and bring to the boil.

Turn off the heat, cover, and allow to steep overnight.

Strain the dandelions out using cheesecloth or muslin, and squeeze it to get all the dandelion water you can.

At this point, you can add a little lemon juice to taste if you like. Heat the water back up and add the sweetener. Remember, the sweetener is a preservative–so even if you want to cut calories you need to have roughly one part sugar to one part dandelion water.

Allow to simmer over a very low flame until reaching desired thickness (remember that while it’s hot, the syrup will be thinner, so test by dripping some onto a fridge-chilled plate).

Enjoy on waffles or pancakes, or diluted in still or sparkling water.

 

*EDIT 10 June 2013: Regarding the nutritional properties of the dandelion, and further reason to incorporate them into your diet and/or pharmacopeia, this recent article from The New York Times points out that dandelions have 7 times more phytonutrients than spinach, which we consider a “superfood.”

My dog Shermie enjoys the dandelions.

My dog Shermie enjoys the dandelions.

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Cats and Essential Oils: Not Happy Together?

Last time I mentioned that essential oils are a handy item to have in your DIY toolkit. They can replace more dangerous synthetic perfumes and save you money BUT their use generally does not apply to cats.

They are not happy together.

Why? Cats have a funky metabolism. Their little livers are unable to detoxify many substances that are harmless to dogs and people because cats don’t make the enzyme glucuronosyltransferase.

Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together...mass hysteria!

Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together…mass hysteria!

In fact, it’s really kind of a pain when you want to care for your pets holistically, because it seems like practically everything you would do for your dog is wrong for your cat. Toxicity in cats can take years to show up, so Kitty might be going along seemingly healthy and then suddenly keel over. And we don’t want that (although the dog might beg to differ).

On our money-saving, DIYing path we are inevitably faced with people who tell us that we are (1) crazy, (2) dirty hippies, and/or (3) actually putting ourselves in danger. Many people are completely sold on the notion that because something comes in a pretty package and has years of marketing research behind it, it must be better and healthier than what you can make yourself. But in the case of cats, we really do have to take extra care and do our homework, lest in our glee over saving money and sticking it to The Man (marketers) we unintentionally murder Kitty.

The subject of essential oils and cats seems to be a contentious one. There are those who claim that all essential oils are poisonous all the time. There are others who claim that some are safe for cats provided they’re diluted a lot. Though I have infrequently used very diluted essential oils on my cat in the past, I don’t now because I’m not convinced by the claims on either side of the issue.

Claims about the dangers of essential oils for cats are basically as follows: Because esential oils are not truly oils but highly concentrated plant extracts, a cat might be perfectly fine cuddling up to, say, a lavender plant, and yet a lavender extract that’s 500 times more potent could be deadly. Some say that exposure to essential oils (even ones diffused by air for their scent) could even cause lymphoma in cats.

On the other hand, there are many people in the US who will tell you that all essential oils will kill humans if ingested. That is complete BS–some oils are commonly ingested in dilute form in Europe (peppermint, rosemary, lavender, inter alia), and clearly they’re not all dropping dead. My point here is that some people are both alarmist and ignorant and TV and the internet are the perfect tools for them to spread their nonsense. And of course one has to wonder whether essential oils can possibly be more toxic* than some of the stuff in pharmaceuticals, made-in-China cat toys, and grocery store shampoos and flea collars. There are lots of people who claim they’ve used EOs on their cats for years with no adverse effects.

This is one of those cases where you have to do your own homework, but it’s wise to err on the side of caution in using essential oils in your cleaning products if you share your house with cats. In particular, don’t use them if there’s any sign your cat already suffers from liver or immune problems.

*It’s well known that many essential oils are absolutely toxic to cats (citrus, tea tree, etc.)–I’m not debating that, only the ones that some claim are safe (e.g., lavender, cedar).

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