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.
Thank you for this article. It amazes me to see all the hate towards this wonderful gift from nature. I read that this plant saved many lives in France during WWII when food became scarce. Who among us can say that a similar disaster will not occur, in which we will thank God for this amazing plant?
I have eaten many pounds of dandelions in my life. I’ll eat a pound or two in a single setting in a delicious salad. And I’ve made a delicious coffee-like drink by first drying, then roasting the roots.
For salads, I prefer the very narrow leaves with sharp pinnacles. It’s best to pick the entire crown in the early season, when the flower buds are just below ground level. They add a marvelous and flavorful feature. But even the more mature plant with full blown flowers are wonderful in salads with vinegar, olive oil, and fresh garlic dressing. The only thing you can’t eat are the flowers after they’ve gone to seed, and that’s good, because nature will disperse them and help them survive in the war declared on them by misinformed humans.
It’s also helpful to transplant young plants from the wild to your garden. They grow very well. One plant can provide a head of greens to deliver a complete salad. I strongly recommend that home gardeners do this. There are few other vegetables that can compare in nutritional value via leaves, roots, and flowers, as does this humble plant that persists, despite all the chemical warfare engaged by the human species.
Pointing out facts and reasons not to spread a globally successful invasive species is not “hate”. I think they are beautiful and functional for humans…and I think humans should eat every one, except where they are native and there are natural checks on their populations. Discussion of an important scientific issue is done with civility and the ability for parties to agree to disagree.
There are many of us that don’t feel that nature was put here for us to choose what exists and what goes extinct. If you want to look at it through the eyes of religion, I don’t even think we were kicked out of the garden of Eden. It is right here all around us, but we push it away at every opportunity. Our kids don’t know the difference between an acorn and a woodpecker. Most have never seen the Milky Way. The diversity of the world’s plant life IS Eden and should be cared for knowledgeably. What would any deity think of how we have treated the planet’s bounty? I honestly hope more people eat the weeds, but there is a big difference between edibility and palatability. Lots more people need to eat them so we can have the “food forest” that evolved here and supported millions of indigenous First Nations people. We could learn so much from them.
Too many myths in the article to cover in a brief reply. What happened to science based articles?
You’ll see more in a future article. There is room for all sorts of opinions in this blog.
Kudos to the Laidback Gardener for being open minded…there are raging debates in every aspect of society right now (sigh…sign of the times), even gardening…science is very inconvenient sometimes, and never finished, or as exact as it could be. But people really need to look into the cost of invasive weeds on our food supply and look into the work of the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) to understand that many plants that evolved to live in specific areas are going extinct for loss of habitat. The photos clearly show how well dandelions will happily dominate a space…and they have the competitive advantage in being away from their own evolved predators which might keep their populations under control.
Humans are humans…we learn, make mistakes, have successes and move on…hopefully without doing major harm. Letting your lawn grow out of control will not help your relations with your neighbors. Heck, these days, planting native plants may not help. But please, before you create a situation that you regret, look into the facts and the research cited above. I grow native plants with food plants and non-invasive ornamentals…these days I spend all my gardening time defending all of the above from invasive species.
The dandelion is emblematic of the invasive plants issue (sort of like the monarch raised our awareness of just how important native plants are). The many introduced plants with dandelion-like flowers are just a few of an increasing volume of introduced species…these collectively interrupt pollinator networks, and interrupt life cycles of moths and butterflies, key food sources for birds. Just please look into both sides, and think carefully about what you are doing to the living world around you. If you are not familiar with the works of Dr. Douglas Tallamy and E.O. Wilson, now would be a great time. Both are easy to find on You Tube. You can do great things in the world by knowing what is in your backyard…and who those plants do…or don’t support.
Thank you Marian! ?
What a fascinating article. I live on an acreage where I grow vegetables , flowers and weeds. I have never minded dandelions. they are a welcome colour after the long winter and make a very nice wine.
Use as many as you can! Humans have rendered species extinct via consumption numerous times, lol. No objections to consuming species and making room for tastier things like raspberries and blueberries (both native to North America), yum!
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Forget about the issues of aesthetics in the perfect lawn. The fact that dandelions can take over natural areas is of more concern. No matter how useful a plant is if it’s goal is to conquer and choke out native flora it is still a noxious week. This is not a plant we should be celebrating.
You’ll see more on this in future articles.
I was interested in the statement that dandelion was good for flu. Could you share the source for that item? All I found online was its effect on viruses in vitro.
That was included in the article offered to me. I do not have that information. Would you like me to ask her?
Here is Edith’s reply: The dandelion is best known for improving liver, urinary and biliary functions. However, it’s when our various systems are weakened that we more easily catch other diseases such as the flu.
Both the leaves and the roots can be used, but the latter is more effective and available all winter if it is dried in the fall, as the plant will have stored up had an ample supply of energy during the summer. Otherwise, you can of course find dandelion roots at herbalists or in health food stores.
When using, soak 20 g of roots in 1 liter of water for 2 hours, then boil for about ten minutes. Drink a cup morning and night.
Sorry but dandelions are NOT good for native plants.And most caterpillars (not just Monarchs) need specific native plants to thrive. And caterpillars are the main food of birds.
We’re hoping to publish an article on the “downside of dandelions” soon.
I guess you can find “downsides,” but please, I hope you also include “upsides.” I simply don’t understand the hate that so many people have for a wonderful, nutritious and faithful gift from nature.
We’ve covered many of the upsides in several recent articles. There are serious problems with letting dandelions proliferate too much in certain environments. They deserve a mention.
Suzanne, do you understand this paper? It describes how dandelions native to Japan and growing in Japan are disadvantaged by other dandelion species that come from outside Japan. I must thus ask, what’s your point?
The research points to the fact that dandelions are highly allelopathic and will displace other species. The fallacy of the above article is that it assumes dandelions stay in lawns. It ignores that what looks like a dandelion flower may be many additional “look-alike” invasive species, also allelopathic. I really don’t want to see the world covered in these things, even though they are beautiful (to a degree). Why are we not jumping up and down celebrating our native species (asters, goldenrod, wild strawberries, blue eyed grass etc. etc.), which support 100s of insects needed by 96% of our songbirds for food?
This is not “hate” it is a legitimate discussion of important ecological considerations. The assumption of this article is that it is ok to have dandelions everywhere because we humans can make use of them. But the piece leaves the unique ecologies of the rest of the world out of the equation. YES! Eat them! But have your kid blow on the asters and goldenrods instead once you have made room for plants that took 16,000 years to evolve in place and are rapidly being displaced by plants like dandelions, hawkweed, hawkbit, coltsfoot, Pilosella, etc. Between invasive plants and massive machine managed landscapes, native plants have trouble keeping up, and that is where the Antrhopocene extinction is being felt most acutely. Plants that evolve in any area on the planet support the existing animals that are there…many lock and key, where they will not survive if the plants they evolved to eat have been crowded out by dandelions etc. A happy dandelion will eliminate about 1′ square of all other vegetation…please take a close look.
Keep them from flowering and dig them out by hand. They want to rule the world, and the science is showing us that they have complex (and until recently) poorly understood mechanisms to outcompete other plants. Much human food and medicine comes from plant diversity…protect your native plants and introduce a variety of those into your lawn. Let it be ankle deep or a bit higher with paths. Have a lawn where you actually use the space. The managed North American lawn is a depauperate biological desert. What garden is complete with only plants?