THE DANDELION, TARAXACUM officinale, is one of the most common plants in the world. Its Latin name, Taraxacum, derives from the Persian word for “bitter herb.” Officinale implies that the plant has some beneficial or pharmaceutical value. The dandelion is probably better known by its many common names, including Blowball, Puff-Ball, Clock Flower, Cankerwort, Lion’s Tooth, Irish Daisy, Monk’s Head, Priest’s Crown, Swine Snout, Wild Endive, and Sin in the Grass. The Spanish refer to it as diente de leon; the French as pis-en-lit; the Chinese as pu gong ying, or “earth nail,” because of its deep taproot; and Native Americans as Chicoria.
Considered an “invasive weed” by many, the ubiquitous dandelion can be found in virtually every corner of the earth, due to its ability to survive in a wide range of climates and poor soil conditions. Easily identified by its yellow flower perched atop a tall stalk and its round, fluffy ball of white down and seeds, which are easily dispersed by the wind, the plant has been cursed by those who want to remove them from their lawns and praised by others who boast about its nutritional and medicinal qualities. The plant is especially attractive to children, who like to blow the fluff ball of seeds into the air.
Dandelions have a checkered past, but throughout history, humans have employed the plant primarily as a source of food and medicine. Many believe that the plant originated in Asia, where it was initially used as a medicinal herb. During the 10th and 11th centuries, Arab physicians were praising the plant for its medicinal qualities. The dandelion was also present in ancient Europe. According to myth, Theseus ate a dandelion salad after killing the Minotaur. The Romans, as well as the Gauls and Celts, used the plant as a source of food. The Anglo-Saxons and the Normans used it for both food and medicine. It could also be found cultivated in monastery gardens. In Medieval times, the French referred to the plant as dent-de-lion, or “lion’s tooth,” in reference to the jagged, curved points on the leaves that resembled the predator’s teeth. Saxon serfs soon corrupted the name to “dandelion.”
European explorers and colonists brought the plant to the Americas for a variety of reasons. Dandelions came to Mexico and the Spanish hinterlands with the conquistadors, who used it for food and medicine. English colonists planted dandelions in their gardens to use as a “salet.” German settlers carried the plant to Pennsylvania and used it as an early spring source of vitamins and nutrition. In Canada, the French brought dandelions to use as a food and health remedy. In time, Native Americas began to use the plant in a variety of ways. The Iroquois used it for stomach problems and water retention; the Cherokee made tea from the root to calm the nerves; and the Pillager-Ojibwa employed the plant as a cure for heartburn.
Medicinally, the dandelion has many important benefits, but its most common application is as a strong diuretic, hence the French name, pis-en-lit, or Piss-in-the-Bed. As an edible plant, dandelion is high in vitamin A and C and also copper and iron. All parts of the plant (leaves, flowers, and root) can be consumed. The leaves contain about 4 percent potassium, which is more than either broccoli or spinach. The roots can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute. Many species of wildlife, including deer, elk, bear, and geese, as well as several species of songbirds, depend upon the dandelion for food.
Although dandelions have historically benefited humans, today they are largely considered a nuisance, especially in Europe. The U.S. Forest Service lists the dandelion as an “invasive and exotic” weed.
Columbian Exchange; Invasive Species; Weeds.
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