This article will take a broader look at that bane of lawn owners, gardeners and farmers, the common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). Long before we dedicated ourselves to wiping out this pretty plant with toxic chemicals, the dandelion was used as food and for herbal remedies by humans and food by insects and other animals – and still is. The plant originated in Eurasia, but now has naturalized throughout most of North America. It is grows everywhere, especially in disturbed or degraded areas.
First a look at the plant’s structure: the common dandelion has a tap root, brown on the outside and white and fleshy on the inside to which is attached a very short stem. The stem is underground so it looks like the leaves sprouting from it are coming straight out of the ground. The leaves form a rosette on the ground and can take different forms even on the same plant. One common form is a leaf with jagged edges that resemble teeth, supposedly the canines of a lion, giving rise to its name “dandelion”, derived from the French “Dent de Lion” (lion’s tooth). One or more flower stalks arise from the center of the leaves and each has one yellow flower head at the top. Each flower head has anywhere from 150 to 300 flowers called florets. The flower heads are produced from spring to fall, but mostly during the spring and summer. Once the flowers are fertilized, the seeds form. Each seed has what looks like a parachute of white hairs (called a pappus) and together they form a globular structure which is very beautiful. These seeds eventually are blown off by the breezes.
Almost all parts of the dandelion are edible and supply vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. The leaves are high in vitamins A and K as well as calcium, potassium and iron. Young leaves are used in salads and are slightly bitter – like mustard greens or arugula. Leaves can be boiled and eaten like vegetables and are more nutritious than spinach or broccoli. Two year old roots are dried, roasted and ground to make a coffee substitute with no caffeine. The flowers are also edible and used to make dandelion wine, tea, jelly, saison ale and soft drinks. The flowers are sweetest early in the season.
But not just humans eat dandelions; other animals like them, too. The flowers produce nectar and pollen and attract bees and other pollinators. Since they bloom so early and late, they are a source of food when other flowers have not bloomed or are done blooming. The bees eat the nectar and spread the pollen to other plants for fertilization. Domestic and big-horn sheep, cattle, sharp-tailed and sage grouse, gophers, deer, elk, grizzly and black bears, prairie chicken, songbirds including Indigo Bunting and American Goldfinch, voles, groundhogs, squirrels and turtles all eat dandelions.
The dandelion contains many pharmacologically active substances and has been used as a medicinal herb in Europe, China and North America to treat digestive problems, infections, liver problems and as a mild laxative and a diuretic. Scientific experiments testing the pharmacologic properties of dandelions have only been carried out in vitro or in vivo with laboratory animals, but not in humans.
Dandelions will proliferate in unhealthy lawns, but are generally not a problem in healthy, vigorously growing lawns. Perhaps if people understood the dandelion’s benefit to bees, especially when bees are in trouble in this country due to herbicide usage, they might tolerate some in their lawns, particularly in the early spring.