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

From 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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DIY Cleaning and Personal Care: Ingredients List

I plan on posting some recipes for cleaning and personal grooming/beauty products you can make yourself, saving yourself loads of cash and exposure to toxic ingredients. But first I thought it would be useful to give you a list of the ingredients I use for these things. Some of these items were ones I already had on hand, while others required a little capital investment. However, that initial outlay of cash was nothing compared to what I save, and since I acquired these ingredients over time, my pocketbook didn’t feel too violated.

I’ve ranked these according to how much I use them, but it may be different for you, depending on what you want to make, your level of experience, and what you already have in the pantry.

The Essentials

  • Water (I know, duh, right? But for some things I use distilled water)
  • Oil(s)
  • Beeswax
  • Apple cider vinegar (white vinegar is ok but I prefer apple cider vinegar)
  • Baking soda
  • Herbs and/or teas

With these ingredients, I can make any number of salves, balms, creams, and lotions; an all-purpose disinfecting surface cleaner; toothpaste; moisturizer; facial cleanser; drain de-clogger; and hair cleanser and conditioner.

I find coconut oil to be totally indispensable for my routine, but other oils suitable for use on skin include olive, jojoba, sunflower, and sweet almond. There are of course many others, but these are common and usually easy to obtain. Olive and coconut oil do double-duty as cooking oils. I do recommend getting the best quality oil you can afford, especially if you are going to use it on your skin, as this will ensure you don’t end up looking like you washed your face with lard pizza. Also, opt for “virgin” or “extra virgin” varieties as these contain more of the plant’s original nutrients. In particular, much of the “extra virgin” olive oil on store shelves is actually cut with lower grade oil–more information on that is here. Turns out that olive oil racketeering has been going on since the Roman Empire.

What you put on your skin gets into your body as surely as if you’d eaten it, so the general rule is if you wouldn’t eat it, don’t put it on your skin.

Calendula officinalis. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Calendula officinalis. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Theoretically, you can get by without herbs, but they add so much and most don’t cost too much, especially if you grow them or gather them yourself. If you were to buy only two herbs, my suggestions would be calendula* and lavender. Calendula is an excellent skin-healer and -soother, full of antioxidants. Lavender is disinfectant and soothing to both the skin and the nerves, plus it smells lovely. I find the scent of “French” lavender to be rather unpleasantly camphor-y, and prefer “English” a.k.a. “true” lavender (Lavandula angustifolia). While you can find “French” or “Spanish” lavender in the flower section of nurseries, English lavender is in the herbs section. Both calendula and lavender are non-toxic and can be taken internally, even eaten for gustatory pleasure, as well as applied externally. Both are good topical treatments for wounds and burns. Alternatively, both green and black tea are full of antioxidants and beneficial for the whole body, including skin and hair. And if you want a free herb that’s good for your liver and digestion, you can’t do better than the humble dandelion. Just make sure any herbs you use aren’t sprayed with chemicals or subjected to lots of car exhaust.

*Brits call calendula (Calendula officinalis) “marigold,” but do not confuse it with what Americans call marigold (Tagetes sp.).

Next Steps

  • Essential oils
  • Raw honey
  • Washing soda
  • Citric acid
  • Borax
  • castile soap (e.g., Dr. Bronner’s), bar and liquid*
  • sugar and/or salt

Ready to get a little more creative? With these ingredients plus those above, you can now add laundry detergent, dishwasher detergent, flea repellent, and exfoliating scrub to your DIY repertoire.

Essential oils are not truly oils, but concentrated plant extracts. They thus add powerful scent, but some (e.g., lavender, peppermint) are what’s called GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) for internal use, so you can put them in toothpaste. Washing soda is sodium carbonate (not to be confused with sodium bicarbonate, a.k.a. baking soda) and Arm & Hammer makes a version. You can often find it in the laundry aisle, but not every store carries it so you might want to call and ask first. Borax may sound like a scary chemical but it’s completely natural. Bar soap is necessary for the laundry detergent recipe I use, but liquid castile soap is useful for many things so you might as well get both. I like the unscented Dr. Bronner’s because there is no smell to clash with other ingredients, and have you read the Dr. B’s labels? They’ll keep you entertained through many a boring trip to the bathroom. (All one! All one!)

*At some point I do plan to try my hand at making my own soap, with the lye and all that, but I don’t have the supplies at this time.

For the Dedicated DIYer

  • Arrowroot powder or cornstarch
  • Hydrogen peroxide
  • Guar gum
  • Alcohol (preferably 100 proof)
  • Vegetable glycerine
  • Raw honey

By adding these ingredients to the ones above, you can now make your own deodorant, tooth whitener, stain remover, medicinal herbal tinctures and syrups, body wash, pet shampoo, and glass cleaner. You can also experiment with different recipes for lotions, toothpaste, etc.

I personally prefer arrowroot powder to cornstarch as I find that it’s more effective both in cooking and in my personal grooming products, but it’s up to you. Cornstarch is undoubtedly the less expensive of the two. Guar gum is a thickening agent derived from beans.

As for the honey, you can wash your face and hair with honey. Yup, just plain old honey. It’s antiseptic so can be helpful with acne and cuts, and extremely moisturizing. Wash your hair with honey and you will truly know what “body” means. All you need is warm water and a little more elbow grease to rinse it off. Plus, if you make sure to get raw honey (if the label doesn’t explicitly say raw, it probably isn’t), it is highly nourishing and can even help with your allergies. It is very important to get real, raw honey–most of what is on grocery store shelves is a sticky melange of unknown provenance made from corn syrup and water. Read more about that here.

And now you can see how with a relatively small number of generally quite inexpensive items, you can make a huge variety of things to care for you home and your body. Even better, almost all of these ingredients are useful for many different purposes, for example, cleaning, cooking, kids’ crafts, and so on.

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Kid Safety Tips

One of the greatest tips I’ve heard lately is so simple, and yet could make all the difference.  On your way out the door to take the kids to the park, the fair, or any other public place, pause for a moment and take a photo of each of them (use your cell phone, if you always keep it with you).  That way, should you get separated, you have a current picture of each child, including what they’re wearing that day.

This also works for pet owners.  There’s probably no need to take a picture of your dog every time you go out for a walk, but it’s a good idea to have a current, clear picture of each animal.  For pets, I’d also suggest trying to get a picture that doesn’t show the collar, or any other unique feature that would be known only to your family.  These details can be used to identify the true owner by someone who might find your lost pet.

While we’re on the topic, it’s also a good idea to prepare a child identification kit, to help in the search if the worst happens and your child goes missing.  Many schools and police stations hold events to help prepare identification kits.  You can also order kits from a variety of online sources, which typically include materials and instructions for collecting and storing your child’s fingerprints and DNA swabs, as well as a recent photo.  These kits may help to guide you in assembling all of the materials and information, but it is also possible to put together a kit at home.

A fingerprint card can be made using an ink pad, cardstock, and a little bit of practice.  For DNA samples, simply take two sterile cotton swabs and rub them on the inside of the child’s cheek (saliva is full of DNA), then allow them to dry and store them in a tape-sealed paper envelope…just be sure that the cotton ends are not handled by anyone else (before or after DNA collection), and don’t lick-seal the envelope, or they could end up producing a mixed DNA profile that would be much less useful to law enforcement.  To be on the safe side, it’s a good idea to wear clean gloves while collecting the samples (that way your DNA won’t rub off on the swab sticks and potentially transfer to the cotton ends during storage).

These sites have more information on making your own Child ID kits:

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Dog Wheelchair Odyssey

A week before his demise, our five-and-a-half-year-old St. Bernard, Dagda, suffered with hips that had deteriorated enough that he needed help to stand up but, once up, he could walk on his own, although he was a little wobbly and would sometimes fall down. My hope was that we could customize a wheelchair so that we could lift him into it and then he’d be stabilized enough to move around on his own. Dagda agreed, so I helped him post an ad on Craigslist. Lots of people responded…I hope that folks are as willing to donate used wheelchairs to needy humans as they are to crippled Saint Bernards.

Anyway, we got the chair and, due to Dagda’s unusual size, it required some additional modifications, compared to the web link that had inspired our quest. By the time we had it fitted to him, his condition had deteriorated substantially. His doctor thinks that he had a degenerative (spinal) disk disorder, in addition to the hip dysplasia. He could no longer shift himself from lying on his side (sleeping) to lying on his belly (Sphinx position) on his own. His steroid pills made him very thirsty, so he would cry at night and need to be propped up to drink water approximately once per hour. I slept on the couch next to him and helped him up many times every night during his last few days. He also lost control of his bladder and it turns out that puppy pads are no match for the amount of urine produced by a steroid-fueled 180-pound dog.

We did give him a chance to try out the wheelchair, but since it couldn’t help him with his nightly struggles, it wasn’t a viable solution for the long-term. It did work nicely, though, (with brakes on) for propping him up so we could give him a bath. See the pictures of Dagda in his wheelchair, below. This kind of chair may work well for dogs with hip issues only.

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Aquarium infested with snails? Miraculously coinicidental cure!

So, unless you’ve had an aquarium infested with snails, you probably won’t care, but if you’ve taken the time to read this far, then you might as well keep going and file this away so you can have something clever to share the next time you find yourself stuck in an awkward conversational pause with an aquariaphile.

Our freshwater aquarium was doing swimmingly until we got a free plant from one of Hubby’s coworkers. It was infested with snails. In short order, we had thousands of tiny snails and numerous big ones. The tiny ones would pile up on the backs of the big ones and careen around like they were in some slow-motion underwater version of a Wisconsin Dells waterskiing extravaganza. It was a nightmare.

We have fancy guppies, and they don’t eat snails, but we read online that another kind of fish, the clown loach, specializes in eating snails. So we bought one and it showed no interest in snails and promptly died. We took the dead one back and exchanged it for a big, healthy clown loach, and bought a bunch of sinking shrimp pellets, to supplement its snail diet.

Well, the big clown loach shows about as much interest in snails as the little clown loach did. However, the snails flock to the shrimp pellets like flies do to our side yard (or like our dogs do to the the kitchen garbage, which ultimately ends up in our side yard). Within an hour of dropping in a shrimp pellet, there is a pile of at least a hundred snails sitting on it. We just take the fish net and scoop them out. It’s amazing! Our tank is almost completely clear of snails after only a few days!

Aren’t you glad you read the whole thing?

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