Thursday, 04 April 2013 14:28

What You May Not Know About the Common Dandelion

By Peter Bowden | Home & Garden

I find it amusing how our attitudes toward things change over time. I’m sure that a lot of this has to do with the fashion industry that keeps us in a constant need to be “current.” Skirt lengths float up and down. Men’s ties get wider and narrower. The older one gets, the less one cares about these subtleties of fashion. When this happens, there’s always the danger of getting stuck in a fashion time warp and ending up as a middle aged balding guy with a ponytail and a penchant for wearing Hawaiian shirts. No, really, it can happen!

You might not realize it, but the same thing happens with plants. Some plants are popular for awhile and then they are replaced with another. Sometimes, just as in the fashion world, plants that were popular in the past enjoy a revival as young gardeners rediscover plants their grandparents loved. 

There’s one plant though, that has suffered a fall from grace so complete that few of us are even aware that it was once one of the most beloved plants on the planet: the ubiquitous dandelion.

It might surprise you to know that, at one time, there was not one dandelion growing on the entire continent of North America. Even knowing that, you’d probably assume that it was just an unfortunate accident that they’re here—they must have gotten here along with another plant, or as a seed stuck to someone’s shoe. 

Actually, the dandelion, that scourge of our lawns we detest so much, was brought here by European colonists intentionally. In fact, more than one group of colonists brought it with them to their new homes in America. Germans are known to have brought it with them and Spanish colonists introduced dandelions into Mexico, including what is now the American Southwest. The reason they made a point of bringing dandelion seed to the New World is because they depended on it to keep them healthy. The dandelion, which is actually a plant native to Asia, has a long history as a beneficial and medicinal plant. In China, it is mentioned in herbal texts as early as the seventh century, and we can assume that it was used medicinally in China even earlier. In Wales, it is mentioned in the writing of physicians during the 1200s. A French physician gave us the name dandelion when he called them ‘dent de lion’ or ’teeth of the lion,’ describing the ragged shape of the leaf. Other common names for the dandelion have been: Blowball, Cankerwort, Swine Snout, Wild Endive, Sin in the Grass and another French name, pis-en-lit, which translates as “wets the bed”. This last name describes the dandelion’s ability as a diuretic. The Latin name for the dandelion is Taraxacum officinale, which can be translated as ‘disorder remedy’. 

Dandelion leaves are a wonderful source of vitamin A as well as potassium, calcium, phosphorus and iron. Common knowledge of our ancestors was that the various parts of the dandelion can be used to treat urinary tract infections, abscesses, eczema, gout, boils, stomach aches and even snakebite. It has also been used to treat high blood pressure and as a liver purifier. The white sap in the flower’s stem has even been suggested as a cure for warts. The list goes on and on. I’m certainly not suggesting that you use dandelions medicinally, but it makes for interesting reading. One would think that since there are references to the benefit of dandelions about as far back in history as history goes, there might be something to all this. One thing is for sure—our ancestors were not going to the New World without the seeds of their favorite cure. It is no wonder that they are everywhere. We may have completely lost sight of the virtues of the lowly dandelion, but they are still with us nonetheless. 

I’ll have to admit that tender young dandelion greens sometimes make it into the salads at my house. They are a little bitter but, when mixed with all the other greens, they’re pretty good. For some, it is an acquired taste. We once served some dinner guests salad with dandelion greens in it without their knowledge. They enjoyed the salad but called the next day to ask us, “What was in that salad anyway?” I won’t go into detail. Suffice it to say, they noticed the effect dandelions can have on the digestive system! Thanks for the read.

Peter Bowden has been providing gardeners with tips and advice for over 35 years. With decades of garden center management experience and thousands of hours of conversations with customers, Peter is well equipped to answer any gardening question that comes his way. His knack for practical and concise explanations has served him well during his 20-year tenure as WRGB’s garden guy. Peter’s tips air each weekend morning on CBS 6 News.

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