Wildflower of the week: Dandelion

The grass verges are scattered with the shaggy mops of bright yellow dandelion flowers right now. That’s not such great news for gardeners. They are perennials that will grow back every year. The plants have long tap roots, that are difficult to dig out and can regrow from any fragments left behind. If that wasn’t enough, they are also great at dispersing their seeds, which will grow just about anywhere. But there is a lot more to the humble dandelion than meets the eye.

The deep tap roots will root in the tightest spots, like here between concrete and fence.

Although listed as a single species, there are actually over 200 hundred micro-species of dandelion, virtually indistinguishable from each other apart from being genetically distinct. The plants form a rosette of heavily toothed leaves – which gives them their name (dents-de-lion: lion’s teeth). The familiar flowers are carried on fleshy stems filled with with white sap. The flowers appear from early spring right through summer, and provide a source of nectar for insects, including bumble bees and butterflies, which is especially welcome early in the year when little else is in flower.

Peacock butterfly feeding on dandelion nectar

Flowers are followed by the fluffy round clusters of seeds (dandelion “clocks”), which are just starting to appear now. Each seed has a fluffy “parachute” attached, which carries it away on the wind. As children, we always used to pick the heads and blow away the seeds – it was supposed to act as a clock – the number of breaths it took to blow away all the seeds would match the time (allegedly)! Some believe that if all the seeds are easily blown away then you will have true love; if some stick behind then your lover has some doubts and reservations!

I was also told recently that children were once warned not to pick dandelions or they would wet the bed! This could have been parental scare tactics to avoid messy sap-stained little hands, although this may come from past use in folk medicine as a diuretic . That gives rise to some of the other old names for the dandelion: piss-en-lit and tiddle-beds. The sap is a folk remedy for warts, though it can irritate the skin too.. Traditionally it had many other culinary and medicinal uses, I’ve never eaten them myself, but the leaves are said to have a bitter flavour becoming stronger with age. Some people use fresh young greens in salads, pasta fillings, pesto and many other dishes. The dried roots have been used as a coffee substitute. Dandelions are also used to make country wines and still used commercially to make the dandelion and burdock soft drink. I’ve only ever fed them to childhood pet rabbits and guinea pigs! Fashionable as foraging is, it’s important to stay safe, use common sense. and respect the countryside.

  • Don’t touch or pick any plant unless you are ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN that it is safe to use, and not poisonous.
  • Don’t pick anything unless it is abundant
  • Only pick small amounts and no more than you need
  • Don’t pick if there is a risk of pesticide/weedkiller or other contamination, including from traffic or other forms of pollution.
  • Always get permission from the landowner.
  • Avoid areas which may be soiled by animals (wild or farm animals or pets)
  • Wash plants thoroughly

Do you know any other old names, folklore or uses of the dandelion? I’d love to hear about them.