Saturday, April 9, 2011

Taraxacum officinale - The "Lowly" Dandelion

Taraxacum officinale - The Common Dandelion, bane to unnaturally pristine lawn lovers everywhere.  Also known as Blowball, Cankerwort, Fairy Clock, Irish Daisy, Lion's Tooth, Peasant's Cloak, Piss-a-bed, Priest's Crown, Pushki (Russ), Sun-in-the-Grass, Swine's Snout, and White or Wild Endive.  The common name is from the French Dent de Leon, and literally means 'teeth of the lion' and is in reference to the appearance of the deeply indented leaves.

Dandelion is native to Eurasia and North America, although Greece has been argued as its specific origin. Two species, T. officinale and T. erythrospermum, are found as weeds worldwide. Both species are edible in their entirety.

The leaves are oblong, spatulate, or oblanceolate; deeply toothed or lobed or in a few cases smooth; appearing in a rosette in early spring. Deep yellow, multi-petaled, chrysanthemum-like flower heads rise on hollow stems up to 18 inches high and open in the morning, then close in the evening or in dull weather; petals are actually hermaphrodite florets which produce the familiar down-attached seeds (achenes) appearing as a globular cluster. The rhizome is short and leads to a long, thick taproot which is dark on the outside (brown to black) and white on the inside. When cut, the plant exudes the familiar milky white fluid.

It first appeared in Chinese medical literature ca 659 CE and was in use in Europe by 1485.  Dandelion was known and used by Arabian physicians by the eleventh century CE.  Its scientific name is believed to have originated with the Greeks, 'taraxos' meaning disorder, and 'akos' meaning remedy.  Homeopathic preparations are used to treat flu, bilious attacks, debility, diabetes, gall stones, headaches (of gastric origin), jaundice, liver problems, neuralgia, night sweats, rheumatism, geographic tongue, typhoid fever.

Dandelion root is a registered drug in Canada, sold principally as a diuretic.   A leaf decoction can be drunk to "purify the blood", for the treatment of anemia, jaundice, and also for nervousness.  A hepatoprotective effect of chemicals extracted from dandelion root has been reported.  Drunk before meals, dandelion root coffee is claimed to stimulate digestive functions and function as a liver tonic.

While the Dandelion is considered a weed by most gardeners and lawn owners, the plant has several culinary uses.  Dandelions are grown commercially on a small scale as a leaf vegetable.  The leaves (called Dandelion greens) can be eaten cooked or raw in various forms, such as in soup or salad.  They are probably closest in character to mustard greens. Raw leaves have a slightly bitter taste.  Dandelion salad is often accompanied with hard boiled eggs.  The leaves are high in vitamin A, vitamin C and iron, carrying more iron and calcium than spinach.

Young Dandelion leaves make delicious sandwiches, the tender leaves being laid between slices of bread and butter and sprinkled with salt.  The addition of a little lemon-juice and pepper varies the flavour.  The leaves should always be torn to pieces, rather than cut, in order to keep the flavour.  Dandelion flowers are used to make Dandelion wine, for which there are many recipes.  It has also been used in Belgium to make an ale called Pissenlit ("wet the bed").  Ground roasted dandelion root can be used as a coffee substitute.  In Poland, Dandelion flowers are used to make a syrup called May-honey. 

The milky latex that exudes from the plant has been used as a mosquito repellent and a folk remedy for treating warts.  More than 90 species of insects dine on Dandelion pollen and bees use its nectar in their honey. The seeds appeal to song birds.

The Dandelion's magical powers include divination, granting wishes and telling time.  It was called the rustic oracle, as its flowers always open about 5 A.M. and shut at 8 P.M., serving the shepherd for a clock.  As a weather forecaster, dandelions remain closed if rain is imminent.  Some believe that burying some Dandelion near the northwestern corner of your home will bring good weather.

Blowing on the seed heads is still a way for children to tell the time of day;  the number of blows to disperse all the seeds determined the time.  Another version determines the time by how many seeds are left behind after blowing on the seed globe three times.  A similar practice employed by children determined whether their mother wanted them to return home; if three blows failed to dispersed all the seeds, the child would run quickly home.  And it was legend that the tallest dandelion stalk that a child could find in the early spring will show how much taller he or she will grow in the coming year.

Blowing on a Dandelion also revealed how much someone was thinking of you, the more seeds there were remaining after one blow, the more you are being thought of.  It was also consulted about how much a person was loved. The more seeds that fly from the globe after blowing on it, the more you are loved.   Others claim that the number of seeds remaining are how many children you will have or how many years you have left to live.  As a messenger of love, a young girl could send a message to her lover by blowing at the seed head in his direction, visualizing her message as she did so.  Also, if you make a wish before blowing on a dandelion with one breath, and all the seeds disperse, your wish just might come true.

Dandelions have long been symbols of good things. Woven into a wedding bouquet, they are meant to be good luck for a newly married couple.  They are also considered to be symbols of hope, summer and childhood, and gathered on Midsummer's Eve, they are said to possess the power to repel witches.

The roots and leaves are made into teas for spells and rituals concerning divination, luck, calling spirits, psychic powers, and wishes.  The entire plant can be used in sachets or dream pillows for psychic dreaming and wishes.  The flowers can also be sewn into small red flannel bag and worn around the neck for wishes. When dandelions appear in dreams, they are thought to represent happy unions.

Traxacum officinale is a common colonizer after fires, both from wind blown seeds and germination from the seed bank.  (The soil seed bank refers to the natural storage of seeds, often dormant, within the soil of most ecosystems.)  The seeds remain viable in the seed bank for many years, with one study showing germination after nine years.  It is a prolific seed producer, with 54 to 172 seeds produced per head, and a single plant can produce more than 5,000 seeds a year.  When released, seeds are spread by the wind up to several hundred yards from their source.  The Dandelion is adaptable to most soils and the seeds are not dependent on cold temperatures before they will germinate but they need to be within the top 2.5 centimeters of soil.

"Behold the lowly dandelion who dares to raise its head,
In ever growing colonies, across the lawn they spread.
They couldn't be more beautiful, if planted there with care.
Nothing in life is common if you consider beauty rare."

Resources include: 

The Backyard Herbalist:
A Modern Herbal:
The Mountain Laurel:
Gardens Ablaze:

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