Everyone knows the dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), which is usually found somewhere in your lawn unless herbicides are heavily used. This European import is probably enemy number one on the lawn weed list, but it is still an interesting study, being both an edible and a medicinal plant.
The familiar bright yellow flowers are made up of many jagged-edged petals that form a flat disc. The name is from the French word dent de lion, which means “lions tooth”. Many insects gather pollen from the plant, and in turn help the pollination process. Dandelion can also self-pollinate when need be, possessing both male and female organs in each flower. They can even pollinate themselves inside unopened flowers, a useful trick, since dandelions only open on sunny days and remain closed during extended cloudy periods. The familiar round seed head has 125-300 seeds, each with its own parachute to be dispersed by the wind (up to five miles) or a child’s breathe.
Despite the weed stigma, the dandelion has some usefulness. Several wildlife species consume the entire plant for food, including deer, rabbit, and bear. Goldfinch, sparrows, quail, and turkey eat the seeds. In earlier times humans also consumed the dandelion both for food and medicine. The young leaves (gathered before the flowers appear) can be added to salads or boiled for 5-10 minutes as a cooked green. The flowers can be dipped in batter and fried. A coffee substitute can be made from the roots by baking them in a slow oven until brown and brittle, grinding, and then perked like commercial coffee. The leaves and flowers are particularly rich in vitamins A and C. Use caution and only eat small quantities of any new food in case of food allergies. There are reports of skin irritation occurring on folks sensitive to latex, which is in the white sap found in the stem and leaves
Traditionally, dandelion has been used for several medicinal purposes. Fresh root tea has been used for liver, gall bladder, kidney, and bladder ailments. It is a diuretic (increases urine), and has been used as a tonic for poor digestion and to treat constipation. Dried leaf tea has been used as a laxative. Research has shown dandelion to be a weak antibiotic against yeast infections.
Some disturbing research indicated that the average American can only identify five plants that grow where they live. Dandelion is so common in yards that it has the prestige of usually being one of the five. Get out there and smell the flowers people, and for Pete’s sake take time to learn a few of them.