As I wait for the first flowers of spring I think of the dandelion. Researching this herbaceous perennial has challenged my thinking. This curious plant is known to some as a wildflower and to others as a weed or herb. The dandelion shares the genus Taraxacum with a great many others. The Taraxacum officinale commonly known as the dandelion is the subject of my discussion. Its name, dandelion is French for lion’s tooth. I had always been confused by this as nothing about this plant seemed to resemble a lion’s tooth. I have come to learn that it is the jagged leaf that gives it its name.
Having evolved about 30 million years ago in Eurasia the dandelion has been used overtime as food and medicine. It was brought to North America from Europe as a garden flower but now grows as a wildflower. The flower’s head consists of many small individual flowers or florets and has a diameter of two to five centimeters. From bright yellow to hues of orange the dandelion flowers open in the day and close at night. I have had students bring me lovely dandelion bouquets only to find them on my desk a withered mess the next morning….always disappointing.
Reproducing asexually a dandelion does not require pollination. As the flower matures it becomes a seed ball often called a blowball or clock. Seeds attached to fine hairs encompass this spongy ball and float off with the wind.
The dandelion’s flower head sits on top of a hollow stem that oozes a milky latex substance when picked. This latex is being investigated in Germany as a rubber substitute. The stem emerges from a tap-root which firmly anchors the plant in the ground. There is nothing more satisfying than getting the entire tap-root when weeding.
Dandelions reproduce quickly. In the temperate climates of north America we see them most everywhere there is sun. They consume athletic fields, orchards, golf courses, lawns and squeeze through the cracks in sidewalks. There is no stopping them. Quite an industry has developed to help us get rid of the dandelion. We pull them, poison them and curse them.
So, how do we think of the dandelion….friend or foe? As with most things in the world sides can not be easily chosen or are pure. I maintain we have to look to the use of the dandelion as medicine, food and garden plants with caution.
As an observer of nature I see the first dandelions of the spring as very much a friend. They nobly provide nectar for bees, butterflies and moths before other blossoms appear. Providing the first meals for these pollinators is extremely important for the success of other flora in the area. One of my favorite memories is walking through the side yard of our rented house after the bees were delivered to the orchard. The entire yard buzzed until the apple blossoms emerged. I was amazed by nature’s plan. I have therefore decided the first dandelions may stay.
For the gardener the dandelion is both friend and foe. Its tap-root brings nutrients to shallow rooted plants adding minerals and nitrogen to the soil. They also attract pollinators promoting pollination for all blossoms in the garden yielding fruit, vegetables, and flowering plants. Dandelions emit a gas, ethylene, that helps ripen fruit. Not all fruits benefit from ethylene gas. Apples and pears require it to ripen as cherries and blueberries do not. As rapid reproducers the dandelion crowds a garden taking space needed for other plant varieties. The gardener must protect themselves from too much of a good thing.
As a food dandelions are mostly a friend. As with all foods balance must be maintained. Too much of a good thing may have negative results. The entire dandelion plant is edible. Its leaves contain vitamins A, C, and K, in addition to calcium, potassium, iron and manganese. Their leaves are often blanched to get rid of their bitterness and sautéed as spinach. Fresh leaves may be used in salads or on sandwiches. Dandelion tea is also enjoyed by many. The flowers are often fried or combined with citrus to make wine. A caffeine free coffee results from a ground tap-root. Rootbeer uses the dandelion as one of its ingredients.
I see and buy wonderful dandelion leaves from the market and would advise one to only acquire them there. I worry about what my neighbors may have sprayed on their lawns etc. that the wind may have carried over to my yard. Unless I have sole control over the plant I would only eat commercially raised dandelions.
As a medicine I would suggest both friend and foe. I am not a big fan of herbal medicines without my physician’s approval. His or her education, experience and knowledge of the most recent literature along with personal knowledge of my medical history trumps me walking up and down the aisle reading boxes of untested herbs, vitamins and minerals. This is not to say that herbal medicines don’t have their place but that I am leery of prescribing for myself. Some of my research indicated that there is no scientific evidence that the dandelion is effective as a medication. It is “likely” safe when eaten as a food or “possibly safe” in larger amounts. Allergic reactions of the skin and mouth and contact dermatitis from the latex have been experienced by some.
Others find the use of the dandelion helpful, however suggest you discuss dosage with your physician. Here is a quick and easy chart provided by Organic Facts at www.organicfacts.net concerning medical benefits.
The dandelion appears to be a cure-all as ketchup was once thought to be. Proceed with care.
After my limited research I will never look at the deceptively simple dandelion in quite the same way. I will think twice before pulling them from my yard (which is a wildflower garden) and will not pull dandelions that appear before the apple and cherry blossoms. Food for thought, more research to be done.