Many of the herbs, fruits and vegetables we consume and use for traditional benefits are sown, grown and harvested far from home. Nonetheless, right here in Ireland (often in our own gardens) is a bounty of wonderful and beneficial plants, with a myriad of uses. This Evergreen series of blogs hopes to make us all a little more familiar with the power of plants.
Dandelion (Caisearbhán), Taraxacum vulgaria
A native and extremely wide-spread plant, the bright yellow dandelion is familiar to us all – and a favourite activity of children when it transforms in a sphere of ready to fly seeds! We tend to view this as little more than a long-rooted and hard to shift weed, however the entirety of a dandelion is not only edible, but certain parts have long-standing traditional benefits to our health and wellbeing. In fact, the scientific name could be originally from the older Greek taraxos, “disorder” with akos “remedy”.
For a caffeine-free coffee substitute, the roots of the dandelion can be thoroughly washed, chopped and roasted in the oven, then 1-2 tsp steeped in hot water, strained to serve. As for the stems, they are characteristically filled with a milky liquid, and are bitter in taste, as are the greens. Although our palate is prone to dislike bitterness, it is important for our liver health. It stimulates the liver to produce bile, which aids digestion. In traditional Chinese medicine, dandelions are viewed as a diuretic – because of this, the leaves and flowers are often boiled and infused into a refreshing tea. Finally, the vibrant yellow petals are ideal to brighten a salad, or if you are really overcome with dandelions, they can also be transformed into a wine!
Burdock (Cnádán), Arctium minus
A plant mostly known for its burrs rather than the preceding pink to purple flowers, and for great reason – burdock burrs and their ability to attach to passing animals (this is their method of sowing) were the inspiration for the Swiss engineer George de Mestral, the inventor of Velcro! It also has a second claim to fame: it was the bittering agent used in beer, prior to the introduction of hops. Burdock has an extremely long tap root, and extensive layers of leaves. The leaves, stalks and roots are edible when prepared correctly, and have many different culinary uses.
Similar to dandelion (which it is often paired with), burdock has bitter properties to promote healthy appetite and digestion. Burdock root is an excellent source of fibre in the form of the prebiotic inulin; and studies have shown that inulin can help stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria, leading to the possible improvement of digestion, immunity, and overall wellbeing. The root is also commonly brewed as tea, or added to soups and stews, as well as being a popular ingredient in many Asian dishes. Burdock stalks can be harvested before the flowers appear – these young stalks have a taste comparable to artichoke, and when peeled can be eaten raw or boiled. The leaves grow large, but are much less bitter if harvested when small.
Nettle (Neantóg), Urtica dioica
The stinging nettle is a plant we have all come into contact with at some point or another, usually resulting in an unpleasant sting that would be remedied with a dock leaf! The name Urtica comes from the Latin verb urere, meaning 'to burn’. The sting is caused by the breaking of the long, thin, hollow hairs (called trichomes) that cover the majority of the stem and the underside of the leaves. The tips of these hairs is pure silica, but when brushed against, this breaks off and the hair acts like a needle, piercing the surface skin and releasing a chemical mix that we have yet to identify each compound of. A familiar name which is included in the concoction is serotonin – yes, the happy hormone! From the nettle’s sting however, it functions only as an irritant.
Nettle can be easily gathered using gloves, and makes both a wonderful tea and delicious soup. Once nettles have met hot water or are cooked, crushed or dried, you’ll be safe from the sting. They taste similar to spinach, and actually contain more iron! Nettle is also rich in vitamin C and high in plant chemicals called polyphenols. Fresh nettle leaves can be boiled and let rest to create nettle tea. The herbs purported diuretic action may flush excess uric acid from muscles and joints, helping to relieve discomfort and act as an anti-inflammatory. Nettle tea is also thought to be effective in treating itchy, watery eyes, runny nose and sneezing – common in hay fever season.
Did you know that the common little daisy is named (nóinín in Irish, bellis perennis is the scientific name) from an older title of 'Day's Eye' as the flowers open at dawn and close at night? The daisy is also actually not one, but two flowers! The ring of typically white petals is one, and the yellow centre disc is another.