The Common Dandelion: An Appreciation of the Dent de Lion

I love the vibrant yellow colour of dandelions, especially when they’re growing in a group. Dandelion plants belong to the family Asteraceae, which includes the sunflower. The flowers support the lives of bees, beetles, and birds. The plants are edible and in the case of the leaves nutritious for humans. Their name comes from the French term “dent de lion”, which means “lion’s tooth”. The name refers to the highly indented and jagged shape of the leaves. I’m always pleased to see the tooth of the lion in bloom.

DandelionsandDaisies

Dandelion and daisies

Dandelions are in their prime in southwestern British Columbia at Easter. I took all of the photos in this article on Easter Saturday and Sunday. Many of the flower buds were open and the insects were already visiting the blossoms. It may sound strange to refer to a dandelion flower as a “blossom” considering how disliked the plants often are when they grow on lawns. I think dandelions are attractive and underappreciated plants that deserve more respect and am happy to call them blossoms.

The common dandelion has the scientific name Taraxacum officinale. The species in native to Europe and has been introduced to North America. The flower is yellow to yellow-orange in colour and is a composite one. It’s technically called an inflorescence, not a flower. The individual components of the inflorescence are called ray florets. Many members of the Asteraceae have disk florets in the centre of their flower and ray florets on the circumference,  but dandelions lack the disk ones. The flowers open during the day and close at night.

Dandelioncrowd

A group of dandelions

The leaves form a rosette at the base of the flower stem. The flower and leaf stems are hollow. The solid parts of the stems exude a white latex when they are first broken. The roots also contain latex. Researchers have found that the latex in the roots repels the larvae of an insect called the common cockchafer (Melolontha melolontha). The larvae spend three years underground and survive by feeding on plants roots, potentially including those of dandelions. Repulsion of the insects would be very helpful for the plant.

I visit a local farmers market that opens in May of each year. The market often sells dandelion leaves that are grown as a crop. They are quite bitter when raw, but I don’t mind this as long as I eat the leaves with other salad greens. Boiling the leaves in water removes some of the bitterness. Dandelion leaves are a diuretic, which should probably be kept in mind by someone eating them. (A diuretic increases urine production.)

The raw leaves are very nutritious. They are rich in vitamin K, beta-carotene (which is converted to vitamin A in our body), and vitamin C. They are also a great source of calcium, iron, manganese, potassium, and dietary fiber and contain significant amounts of other nutrients. The leaves contain so much vitamin K that anyone who has a disorder or is taking a medication that is related to the vitamin should do some research before eating them.

The root has the form of a taproot, like carrots and parsnips. Dandelion roots are sometimes roasted and used as a coffee substitute. I’ve never tasted dandelion root coffee, so I’ve no idea whether it’s any good.


Be very careful if you decide to forage for dandelions. Proper identification of the plant is vital. Several plants have flowers resembling those of dandelions. In addition, the plant should be collected from an unpolluted area that hasn’t been treated with herbicides and should be washed well. If you have any doubts about identification or safety, buy cultivated leaves.


DandelionBeetle

Dandelions are important for insects.

 

Ray-floret.svg

Parts of a ray floret found in the family Asteraceae (Illustration by Roepers and Carol, CC BY-SA 3.0 license)

If you look very closely at a dandelion flower head, you’ll see some of the parts of each floret. A magnifying glass will provide a better view and will reveal a structure like the one shown in the illustration above.

Each floret consists of an ovary (A) at the base and a group of hairs known as a pappus (B) extending from the ovary. The long and narrow petal of the flower is technically known as a ligule (D). Emerging from a tube at the base of the ligule are the fused anthers (C). The style (E) and the branched stigma at its tip emerge from the tube formed by the anthers.

The ovary, style, and stigma form the pistil and are the female part of the flower. A filament (not labelled in the illustration) and the anther at its tip form a stamen and are the male part of the flower. The flower contains multiple stamens.

At maturity, the ovule inside an ovary becomes a seed and the ovary a fruit. The rest of the flower drops off, except for the pappus, leaving a fluffy collection of fruits attached to the top of the flower stalk. Each fruit is known as an achene. The collection of dandelion achenes is sometimes known as a dandelion clock. A traditional story that I loved in my childhood says that the number of times that someone needs to blow to remove all the achenes from their receptacle indicates the time of day.

Dandelionsix

A dandelion and other plants


The fact that dandelion leaves are a great source of nutrients is a good reason to eat them to help maintain general health. Some people claim that dandelion has benefits for specific diseases, however. The NIH (National Institutes of Health) says “There’s no compelling scientific evidence supporting the use of dandelion for any health condition”. Of course, this situation might change in the future, but I think it’s important to know the current point of view of scientists.


As a child in Wales, one of my favourite drinks was the dandelion and burdock pop (carbonated beverage) made by a company called Corona. The company was very popular at one time but no longer exists. I don’t know what the ingredients of the pop were or whether it was flavoured artificially, but it was delicious. Dandelion and burdock is a traditional combination in UK drinks. Today the combination generally exists in pop, but it was once a fermented and alcoholic beverage made from the roots of the plants. This form can still be bought in some places in the UK.

The reason why dandelion and burdock were first combined to make a drink seems to be unknown. I’m grateful for the discovery, though. I still remember my love for the flavour of my childhood beverage many years after I last drunk it. Perhaps the drink has something to do with my fondness for dandelions today.

Dandelion and brooklime

Dandelions and American brooklime flowers

References

  • Insects need dandelions from The Guardian
  • Latex and an insect larva from the phys.org new service
  • Nutrients in raw dandelion leaves from SELFNutritionData (This site gets its data from the USDA, or United States Department of Agriculture.)
  • Dandelions and health from the National Institutes of Health
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