With the 2022 No Mow May beginning today, guest blogger Edith Smeesters pays tribute to this much maligned plant that is also so welcoming and useful.
By Edith Smeesters
Of all the so-called weeds, the dandelion is arguably the most hated and persecuted. Well, at least in North America. Letting dandelions bloom on your lawn seems like an insult to many people who consider such a habit to be careless and negligent, a shame for the whole neighborhood! Some believe it can even decrease the value of their homes and even today, many people tell me that they pull all dandelions they see out by hand because it’s not part of a well-maintained lawn. Where does this phobia come from, this aversion for a plant which nevertheless has multiple qualities and which can be found all over the world?
A Long History
The name dandelion is from the French dent-de-lion, or lion tooth, because of its leaves cut into jagged toothlike edges. According to Wikipedia, the plant is also known as blowball, cankerwort, doon-head-clock, witch’s gowan, milk witch, lion’s-tooth, yellow-gowan, Irish daisy, monks-head, priest’s-crown, puff-ball, faceclock, swine’s snout, white endive, and wild endive. The names pee-a-bed and wet-a-bed (from the French pissenlit) refer to the plant’s effectiveness as a diuretic.
There are some 60 species found all over the world, but we call the most widely distributed species, as you might imagine, common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). Native to Europe and Asia, it was brought to other countries as a vegetable, then escaped from culture, so it now grows wild throughout much of the world.
The origin of the Latin name, Taraxacum officinale, is, however, more obscure. The latest theory is that it is from Persian, as the Persian scientist Al-Razi wrote about a plant he called tarashaquq that he said resembled chicory. In translation from Arabic to Latin around 1170, it was spelled tarasacon. 
As for the epithet officinale, it means “of pharmacological use” and refers to the dandelion’s medicinal properties which have been appreciated since the dawn of time.
Designed for Lawns!
Although it can grow almost anywhere, the dandelion prefers sunny, regularly mown meadows. The lawn is therefore a prime habitat for it. Depending on the richness and depth of the soil, it can become huge or remain stunted.
It’s a member of the Asteraceae family, distinguished by their composite flower heads in which numerous individual flowers grow on a single capitulum or receptacle. The “petals” of the dandelion are therefore small individual blooms set tightly together, each of which transforms into a beautiful seed (achene) equipped with a pappus (parachute) as the flowers matures.
And that’s the origin of those white, wispy puff-balls that we all blew upon when we were kids! Thanks to this wonderful invention of nature, the wind disperses these millions of small parachutes over vast distances. It’s therefore a bit futile to think we could ever eliminate dandelions from a neighborhood, or even an entire city, because its seeds are equipped for long-distance travel and will always come back, settling in places best suited to their growth . . . much to the pleasure of those who take the trouble to observe dandelions and appreciate their many virtues.
A Valuable Food and Pharmaceutical
The dandelion is indeed an edible plant. There isn’t, in fact, any part you can’t eat:
- The leaves are delicious in salads. Harvest them soon after the snow melts and certainly before the plant flowers; otherwise they become bitter. Connoisseurs blanch them by covering them with a board or an overturned clay flowerpot. The leaves can also be served in soups, quiches and herbal teas. They are very rich in iron and vitamin C and are available at a season when garden vegetables are not yet available.
- Flower buds can be marinated in vinegar and make a good substitute for capers.
- The flowers are used to make a dandelion wine, which is actually more a rather heady digestive than a wine. In Franche-Comté in eastern France, locals also make a kind of jelly, called cramaillotte or dandelion honey.
- Roasted roots make an excellent coffee substitute similar to chicory.
- The dandelion is also a medicinal plant. Dandelion sap was once considered a cure for eyesight problems and the milky sap of the flower stalk also treated warts and freckles. But above all, the leaves and roots of the dandelion have tonic and appetite-stimulating properties. They stimulate bile secretions and act positively on the liver. They also help lower cholesterol levels and, of course, are very diuretic and purifying. And there is nothing like a dandelion decoction to drown out the flu! In addition, its richness in vitamin C makes it a great antiscorbutic while its iron content helps fight anemia.
Beyond Backyard Foraging
In several countries, gardeners and farmers grow dandelions for their culinary and medicinal properties. Indeed, you’ll be able find them more and more often in farmers markets near where you live. Moreover, dandelions help improve the soil. Their long taproot penetrates deep into the earth and brings minerals to the surface even as it aerates the soil. It settles quickly on erosion-prone river embankments and thus helps solidify them.
So Much Going for It
In short, with so many varied qualities, it’s surprising that not everyone cultivates dandelions in their vegetable gardens. They do so in many countries of Europe, notably in Italy. And North Americans did too, in the past. In an article by Céline Caron in the now-defunct magazine Humus, mid-June 1987), we learn read that “Dandelion roots sold for 16 cents per pound on the Canadian market in 1920. The yield was estimated at between 450 and 700 kg per acre for an income ranging from $160 to $240. Its economic importance justified its presentation in a brochure published in 1925 by the Canadian Department of Agriculture. Ironically, 75 years later, the dandelion is still the subject of a trade, but an oh so different one. It’s no longer the plant itself that generates profits, but the herbicides that are used to destroy it.”
The dandelion has become so abundant and commonplace that it’s seen by most people is something quite mundane and uninteresting. Such an everyday plant certainly has no place in a well-kept garden! It’s associated with vacant lots, sidewalk cracks and roadsides. It therefore brings to mind homelessness, poverty and everything that our society wants to reject or ignore. But it has this incredible ability to adapt to even the most uncultivatable environments and to come back in force as soon as we suspend our use of herbicides. And for those reasons, it also represents an eternal challenge to our will to dominate nature. The dandelion is undoubtedly the perfect symbol of untamed nature in our own backyard!
About the Author
Edith Smeesters is the author of several books on ecological gardening. This article was adapted from the author’s book: Guide du jardinage écologique, Éditions Broquet, 2013, and was translated from French into English by Larry Hodgson. Unless otherwise mentioned, photos by the author.