Bitter Love

My grandfather (the American one) had many diverse interests, ranging from sports, to finance, and many in between. I fondly recall his passion for history: walking around Kansas City, he'd point out historical markers and talk to me about the Santa Fe Trail, and the lives of pioneers who set out westward to seek their fortune. While I have misgivings about that chapter in US history, I am still grateful for how my grandfather taught me to imagine the footsteps of those who walked a city street or farm field years and years ago. I learned to imagine these historical figures overlaid on today's visual image of the landscape--roads, now paved, became dirt tracks bustling with covered wagons, horses, and caravans of supplies.

For me, this added layers of depth and richness to my everyday experience. It may, in part, be what gets history buffs hooked. But I may have been hard-wired for this already: growing up in Italy, I was surrounded by history, and walked through the echoes of years past. I also remember the attitude towards sites and buildings that were hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years old: upkeep and preservation, an honoring of the living memory that historical architecture provides, was always part of the conversation. In Kansas City, by contrast, old buildings served as an opportunity to start fresh with more modern, efficient construction. I understand both perspectives, but miss the depth that old things provide. I miss the richness of story that layers in under the superficial day-to-day. And I think that, when you are surrounded by these stories and reminded of them every day, your attitude towards preservation shifts. What seemed old and inefficient becomes precious, animated from within by the ghosts of our ancestors.

This is similar to the experience we have when we start learning to identify the plants, trees and mushrooms that grow outside our door. I remember (with the same fondness I have for my grandfather) my first mindful plant identification walks: they were full of effort, slow, but rich in the promise of an expanding vista and depth enfolded into every nook of the forest. Getting to know our green friends brings this extra layer, this richness, to our days, to our hikes, even to our walks in the city. And having that rich, deep experience changes you relationship to the world.


Take the dandelion as an example. I start here because almost everyone knows this plant, and most can positively identify it. For this reason, dandelion can be the unofficial "gatekeeper" to that deeper level of relationship with the world, and it opens up one of the first meaningful encounters we can have with the plant world. Think back to when you were very young. We may only hold a faint memory of playing with dandelions as children, but for almost everyone, that memory is in there somewhere!

Contrast the child's experience of dandelion with the experience most adults have. In a nutshell, it's the difference between an encounter with a plant (the child's experience) and the knowledge of that plant (the adult's experience). It's the difference between relating to another living being--the encounter--and relating to a mental construct--the knowledge. In an encounter, we might say, "Look at these dandelions! The flowers are so bright, I want to pick them and chain them together. If I blow on the seeds, they fly off in the wind. The greens taste good and crunchy." With knowledge, we almost cut ourselves off from the very beginning: "I know dandelion--it's a weed that spreads aggressively and tarnishes my lawn. If I spray it or pull it, my yard won't be as messy." Dandelion's bright flowers don't stand a chance. Our decision is already made.

kids dandelion bouquet 
It's one thing to notice the differences between an experience of encounter and a knowledge-based experience. But it's even more instructive for me to take time to observe the consequences of these two approaches. If we rely on knowledge and apply it with prejudice, we will pull out or spray what we know to be a pest. If we approach the dandelion with a desire to encounter the plant on its own terms, we have the chance to experience joy and connection--and while we might pull some plants up, or pick some flowers, it is for enjoyment and for practical use. We've met the dandelion with an open heart. We have encountered it.

Herbalists have encoded these encounter-experiences with plants since before history. They are encoded in magical fairytales, and in observations of botanical details thought to relate to the supportive properties of the herb in question. Herbalism teaches what philosopher Freya Matthews (La Trobe University) calls "the priority of encounter over knowledge". We prioritize encounter because we feel the world is a co-equal partner. And we remember our encounters through stories, magic, and observation. With dandelion, for example:

  • "Magic". As a kid, I learned that you can send a thought to a friend if you hold it with fervent purpose in your mind while blowing on dandelion's seedhead. As the seeds fly off, they carry the thought where it needs to go. And, if you blow a second time and only one seed remains attached, it means your friend has heard you and is thinking of you, too.
  • "Signature". This is the concept that physical characteristics of plants can help us remember significant encounters, and act as tangible embodiments of the human-plant relationship. For dandelion, the "signature" is the yellow flower. Yellow, in traditional herbalists' minds, is connected to bitterness, the liver, bile, and digestive health.

All parts of the dandelion are bitter, to differing degrees. In spring, the root is strongest--but the flowers are quite bitter too, and the leaves carry a deliciously crunchy, salty bitterness that feels more enlivening than yucky. This is what the bitter flavor offers: a different type of zing, one that juices up the entire digestive system and can help relieve gas, bloating, or the occasional bout of indigestion. It's not without challenge: just as you might be tempted to just pull up and destroy all the dandelions based on what you know, you might be inclined to spit out the flowers on account of their mild bitterness. But if you allow yourself to encounter that bitter flavor, experiencing it on its own terms, you just might find that, like an old palazzo with its courtyard of worn-down cobblestones, it's worth keeping in your life. Most people come to appreciate, even enjoy, the bitter flavor if they just give it a chance. And, just like with history or the study of botany, their perspective shifts, too: it's liberating to see food as more than just different degrees of sweet or salty.

fried dandelion There are a few easy recipes to help you encounter dandelion this spring. One of my favorites is dandelion fritters, a savory, slightly bitter treat. First, prepare a batter by whisking together 1 egg, 1 cup milk, 1 TBS olive oil, and a pinch of salt. Then mix in 1 cup of flour (dairy and gluten free substitutes work well, too). Now take fresh dandelion flowers, trimming their stems so only about 1” is left, and dip them in the batter holding them by the stems. Immediately pan-fry in butter on medium heat, about 2min/side, and enjoy hot.

Another way to use dandelion is to harvest the roots and create grounds that can be used as a substitute for coffee in almost any application, from French press to automatic drip. Roasted dandelion roots have a delicious nutty-bitter flavor. The first step is to buy coarsely chopped dry roots, or harvest and chop them yourself into pieces about 1/4" in size. In a cast iron pan over low to medium heat, roast the roots, stirring every minute, for about fifteen minutes or until a nutty, toasted smell begins to develop. Spread the roots out over a wide surface until they cool to room temperature, then grind to the desired coarseness in a coffee grinder. Store in a tightly-sealed mason jar for up to a month and use just as you would ground coffee.

My aunt Rita would set out on spring mornings, sometimes when a light frost was still on the ground, with a knife and basket to harvest the crowns of the newly-emerging dandelions. We'd come home and dress them with oil and vinegar to eat as a salad for lunch. These days, you can find dandelion greens in a lot of grocery stores! Harvest (or buy at the store) a small basket of dandelion leaves. Make sure you're gathering from a safe site. Rinse the leaves well and pat them dry with a towel. Then chop them coarsely, dress with olive oil, apple cider vinegar, and a pinch of celery salt. This mix can also be pan-fried for those who prefer cooked greens--and in either case, it makes a great tonic, enlivening bitter salad. And, it's a fun activity to do with kids while they harvest the flowers.

 Guido and his dad

Finally, we love making simple tinctures, or alcohol-based extracts, as a way to capture and preserve the full flavor of medicinal herbs. With dandelion, you can make a quick and effective herbal bitters by combining them with aromatic pine needles (your choice of species, but avoid Ponderosa pine, which can be a bit too strong), or whole citrus fruits if you prefer. Use dandelion roots, leaves, or both along with about an equal amount of fresh pine needles. Chop all the ingredients and put them into a mason jar (about ¾ of the way full). Add 100 proof vodka to the top of the mason jar. Cap tightly. Steep for three weeks, shaking at least twice a week, then strain and bottle. Take between 30 and 90 drops (1/4 to 1/2 tsp), usually in a little water before mealtime.

These recipes--and the experience of bitterness in the spring--give us a chance to encounter dandelions and other bitter plants in a way that transcends a simple visual relationship. We encounter them with our bitter taste receptors, we encounter them with our full sensory capacities, with our organs, with the memories from our forebears that are encoded in our genome. This has real, immediate benefits--but it also represents how herbalism can encourage this embodied encounter with nature. A human who has felt this whole, complete experience has a multi-layered, deep understanding of the dandelion, one that is very different from the knowledge that comes from reading about dandelion in a book.

Once that shift happens, and we start to see the world as populated with beings we can encounter, it changes the way we approach our forests, farms, fields, parks and backyards. Just like the historian moving through a Renaissance town and imagining the art, science, rhetoric, wars, loves, and struggles of ages past, we begin to see the world as animated by an invisible thread. To be frank, we shift from an attitude of objectification to one of partnership. And when we encounter our partners, we experience joy. I will leave you with a final thought: when this shift happens to a person, what are the consequences? What will such a person dream, feel, work towards in their daily life? What will they value?

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