By Kathleen M Hale, Western Reserve Unit
Is there anything more all-American than the dandelion, ubiquitous bane of the perfect suburban lawn? Wrong on all counts.
While there are North American natives that are part of the genus Taraxacum, T. officinale – the common dandelion — was an immigrant to these shores.
The dandelion as we know it was introduced from Europe. There it was well known in every herbal. Part of the aster family, the Taraxacum’s common name comes from French for lion’s tooth, “dent-de-lion.” That, in turn, comes from the Medieval Latin, “dens lionis.” Unfortunately, the actual common French word for the dandelion is “pissenlit,” which means “to wet the bed.” Similar names persist in parts of Great Britain and Ireland.
No two snowflakes may be identical, but many dandelion flowers start out that way. They can propagate without pollination, producing seeds asexually, each new plant a clone of the parent. The flowers produce a choreographed wave of gold sometime in April through June. Each composite flower head is made up of many small florets held high on a single stem over the flat round mat of toothed leaves.
The early mass flowering of dandelions makes them the first to the pollinator party and an important contributor to nature. Coltsfoot has a similar but smaller flower head, and is another early bloomer, but has no leaves at the base of the stem.
Dandelion flower heads open in the day, and close at night. The stem is hollow, and produces milky latex when severed or bruised. The flower heads are sheathed in a double row of sepal-like green bracts, which begin to arch downward as the seeds mature. Everyone who was ever a child knows those seed heads, sometimes called “clocks,” look like downy, perfect globes. A breath (or several) can disperse those seeds on their web-like parachutes. The theory that blowing away the seeds in one breath will grant a wish remains unproven.
Some people, especially those allergic to ragweed, might also be sensitive to the dandelion. But generally, all parts of the dandelion, from its long tap root to its downy golden head, are edible and have been revered for being beneficial.
Like so many early appearing plants it is a traditional bitter spring tonic, both emetic and diuretic in its effects. The root and the latex in the dandelion’s stem produce inulin and tannin. Extracts, tinctures, and solutions from dandelion parts have been used to do everything from increasing bile function to treating acne. If you can find a tangle of dandelion roots that resemble the male anatomy, it has been said that one can bid the desired male person to follow by throwing the tangle behind the enchanter…but I’m trying to cut down on that sort of thing.
I am trying to be more courteous to dandelions by discontinuing my lawn service. It might not save the pollinators, but bringing back the dandelion is a good beginning. And, as for the perfect suburban lawn, let me quote the dandelion’s entry in Flora’s Dictionary, The Victorian Language of Herbs and Flowers, by our fellow herbalist and HSA member Kathleen Gips: “…absurdity; ‘I find your presumptions laughable’”.
Pick those dandelions for wine. Check out a previous HSA blog post.