Botanic Notables: The Dandelion

Botanic Notables: The Dandelion

August 4, 2011
Photo by: Eric Lamb

What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not been discovered. 

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, Fortune of the Republic (1878)

The dandelion. A flower of medieval legend and contemporary ignominy, the dandelion is a master of survival. As a prized flower among apothecaries, plant foragers, and artists, the dandelion has cultivated a long list of medicinal applications, recipes, and literary metaphors. As a notorious garden weed, the dandelion has cultivated a long list of detractors. And, as a model of adaptation, the dandelion thrives by cultivating itself. Historically, it has always been a useful plant, but those uses are not as popular today, and so the flower has fallen out of fashion. In my own Portland garden, I've cursed the yellow flower's tenacity, and sturdy roots that grow longer than my spade. Giving a profile to the unpopular flower may seem blasphemous, but, in the garden more than anywhere, it is best to know your enemy (and when to consider befriending that enemy).

The dandelion was purposely introduced to North America to provide food for honeybees, and they have dominated lawns ever since. As readers of virtually any temperate region in the world will attest, a flower bed of the common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) doesn't indicate any neglect on the part of the gardener. Rather, it's the dandelion's extremely successful life cycle and structure. 

In the garden, it is best to know your enemy.

It grows quickly, and it commonly self-pollinates. The pollinator thus removed, a dandelion can flower and seed in one day, tossing its progeny across a field before it is seen and removed. And this is no small army: a dandelion is a composite plant, which means that its blossom is comprised of hundreds of individual flowers, each yielding a seed. The seeds (called achenes) are designed to travel—each is equipped with a tiny parachute that carries it away in a passing breeze.

The dandelion's rosette leaves are long and strong, and they will push through grasses or other plants, giving the flower stalk ample room to thrive. But it is what happens below, that should be a concern to readers. A long taproot (up to 15 feet) anchors each dandelion stalk, and it will regenerate a fallen flower, unless it is removed completely. This brittle root will easily fracture—and the broken pieces will re-flower in as many fracture points. In other words, if you try to dig up a dandelion, but instead sever the root in six place, you'll have half a dozen new flowers. As Wildman Steve Brill, speaking in the voice of the wise dandelion, once observed, "A dandelion digger is a human invention to help us reproduce." 

Photo credit: Binzy

A dandelion's capacity for survival wasn't always a bad thing. But when the modern lawn became a symbol of a gardener's diligence, that the dandelion became a plantae non grata. The dandelion has been an important plant for food and medicine for thousands of years and its genus name, Taraxacum, comes from the Greek words taraxos, meaning disorder, and akos, remedy. The species name, officinale, means that the plant is used medicinally. 

It as mentioned in 10th century Arabic medicinal texts, and the flower was considered a botanic first aid kit among ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Chinese. Herbalists have prescribed the milky sap for warts, the flower as an antioxident, and the leaves as a vitamin-rich defense against the dreaded scurvy. The USDA will confirm that the dandelion contains more vitamin A than spinach, more vitamin C than tomatoes, as well as potassium, calcium, and iron. And, dandelion root is a registered drug in Canada.


On the menu, dandelion advocates remind that every part of the plant is edible. Sautee the flowers with a bit of garlic, roast the roots for a soup, and toss a dandelion leaf salad. Dandelion and Burdock is a soft drink in United Kingdom health food market, and DandyBlend is a dandelion root-based coffee substitute, available throughout the United States.  

Walt Whitman wrote a poem about the dandelion ("Simple and fresh and fair from winter's close / emerging / As if no artifice of fashion, business, politics / had ever been"), and Ray Bradbury famously used the dandelion as a metaphor for the cycle of life and memories of a summer day, evoked by a bottle of dandelion wine. Among European children in particular, the flower's airy round seed head is called a dandelion clock, with the belief that the number of breaths required to blow the seeds away will correspond with the time of day—while not a particularly accurate time keeping device, it is a charming way to think about the flower's daily cycle. In his painting "The Dandelion Clock," Irish painter William John Hennessy illustrates the amusement of a dandelion on a sunny afternoon. 

William John Hennessy
Credit: William John Hennessy

I recently walked by a yard that was filled with dandelions, and I assumed that the house was abandoned (it wasn't). Now I wonder if dandelion wine was being bottled inside. 

Related: See Anna Laurent's post about how to make a sun print with a giant dandelion.

Anna Laurent is a writer and producer of educational botanical media. Photographs from her forthcoming field guide to Los Angeles are available for exhibition and purchase at the author's shop.