Peter Gail, PhD, the self-styled “King of Dandelions,” died on February 14, 2018. A lifelong interest in wild and foraged foods became the foundation of Gail’s career to promote the benefits of backyard weeds in the diet, specifically dandelion (Taraxacum officinale, Asteraceae).
Gail’s knowledge of wild foods began at the age of nine, following his father’s death in 1948. Struggling to make ends meet, Gail’s mother learned about the prevalence of lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album, Amaranthaceae) in the area where they lived in southern California. Gail’s mother sent him and his brother Michael out every day to forage for lamb’s quarters and other wild foods, which sustained the family until his mother found a steady job. Later, in his teenage years, Gail worked at a logging camp in northern California and supplemented his diet by foraging in the woods with his friends.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in biology with a botany focus from California Polytechnic State University, Gail continued to pursue his interest in botany with a master’s degree in botany and plant biology from Claremont Graduate University and a doctorate in botany from Rutgers University. His primary research focus involved studying how various indigenous cultures used wild plants for food and medicine. After earning his doctorate, he was an associate professor at Cleveland State University, where he taught economic botany and environmental studies from 1972 to 1988.
A tour through Europe and interviews with local citizens in England, Belgium, and Italy showed Gail that people in the United States lacked the overall knowledge and use of wild foods that many in Europe still held. During his years of teaching, he collected local recipes that used wild foods in an effort to preserve and disseminate this knowledge.
In a 2011 interview with herbalist Susun Weed, Gail said that by 1979, he had amassed, in his estimation, the “largest collection of recipes and folklore of wild plants in the country,” but that his collection “lacked organization.”1 After analyzing his collection with the intention of publishing a book, he discovered that he had more than 600 recipes for dandelion from 43 countries. Gail narrowed his focus to dandelion, which became his “flagship plant,” and he began to edit and publish dandelion recipe collections in order to “help people become aware of the incredible value of this plant.”
“What are ‘wild foods?’” Gail asked Weed rhetorically.1 “Americans are surrounded by vegetables going to waste.” In 1988, Gail left Cleveland State University and founded the Goosefoot Acres Center for Resourceful Living in Cleveland, Ohio. Under the auspices of Goosefoot Acres, Gail devoted himself entirely to teaching and demonstrating the healthful benefits of weeds as food and medicine. He published multiple books, mostly about dandelions but also about the uses of daylilies (Hemerocallis spp., Asphodelaceae) and mulberries (Morus spp., Moraceae), among other foods. He also published “The Defenders of Dandelion” newsletter. In 1994, he founded the National Dandelion Cookoff, which ran for 10 years. Participants were invited to submit recipes to Gail; each year, he received 60-80 submissions and picked 20 finalists. His recipe collection expanded to more than 1,000 dandelion recipes from 66 different countries.
Also in 1994, Gail began producing and marketing a coffee alternative called DandyBlend, which used roasted dandelion root, roasted beet (Beta vulgaris, Amaranthaceae) root, roasted chicory (Cichorium intybus, Asteraceae) root, roasted rye (Secale cereale, Poaceae), and roasted barley (Hordeum vulgare, Poaceae) to create a healthful, caffeine-free beverage. His efforts to introduce wild foods to the diets and medicine cabinets of the United States earned him induction into the National Wild Foods Hall of Fame, part of the Nature Wonder Weekend held annually at North Bend State Park in Cairo, West Virginia, in 2000. He also appeared on multiple television programs to promote dandelions, including segments on “Good Morning America,” “The Home Show,” the Food Network, and Cleveland’s local morning show “Morning Exchanges.”
In his personal life, Gail was an active member of his church and served in leadership roles in his congregation. Congregants remembered his charity work, sense of humor, and the understanding and comfort he provided. A memorial service that celebrated the life of Peter Gail was held on February 21, 2018, in Medina, Ohio. He is survived by Wilma Gail, his wife of 57 years; his brother Michael Gail; children Karin (Dominic) Reale, Kevin (Kirsten) Gail, and Kori (Christopher) Russell; and six grandchildren.
- Meet the king of dandelions, Dr. Peter Gail. Wise Woman Radio. The Wise Woman Way with Susun Weed. February 2011. Available at: www.wisewomanradio.com/interviews/gail.html. Accessed April 2, 2018.