Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Taraxacum officinale [plant] 20221217_144029 sml.jpg

If there was another weed which is the definition of 'weed', it is dandelion. © JPM, 2022.

Names

Hailing from the genus Taraxacum (T.), the English 'dandelion' apparently originates from an ancient Norman (French) word, dent-de-lion, Lion's Teeth, probably after the ragged edges of the leaves or the tooth-like taproots (Low 1991: 25; Grubb & Raser-Rowland 2012: 49). Most species found in the wild will be T. officinale, but there are hundreds of subspecies, some of various medical and commercial interest such as the Russian dandelion (T. kok-saghyz) farmed for its rubber latex and potential replacement of the pará rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis).

Habitat and Range

Dandelion has a global distribution (saving Antarctica), although it is less common in the tropics and arid regions. Dandelion prefers subtropical and temperate zones, often growing as a biannual in the former and annual in the latter. It is an extremely adventurous plant and regular first occupier of disturbed ground such as tilled gardens and fields and cleared land. It will happily occupy pavement cracks, lawns and parks, in shady or full sun locations, and can often spring up through mulch cover.

Figure 1. Distribution of Taraxacum around the sunburnt continent. Atlas of Living Australia.

Taraxacum distribution map.png


Identification

Key Identifying Features
  • Plant grows from a solid, parsnip-like taproot
  • Stemless (except for flower stalks)
  • Leaves, 5-20 cm in length, emerge from taproot in a 'basal rosette' pattern
  • Leaves are usually jagged, coming to an arrow-head tip (older leaves may lose much of this shape)
  • Leaf stems may redden near the taproot end
  • Flowers emerge on hollow stalks (2 to 40 cm in length) that turn brown-red with age
  • Only ever one flower per stalk
  • Flowers are bright yellow, 'ray' type
  • Flowers set into white 'puffballs' blown upon by children everywhere
  • Seeds fly on airborne parachutes ('pappus')
  • Leaf, flower stalks and root skin will bleed a white latex when cut
Dandelion plants are easily spotted in lawns, pavements and parks by their basal rosette leaf pattern (see header image at top of this article). There are many common weeds that look similar, however (see below). Leaves are usually jagged, but older plants can lose much of that ragged shape. True dandelion, unlike its many look-alikes, only ever has one flower per flower stalk, its key identifying feature. Flower stalks are hollow and may turn brownish-red as the flowers set into those distinctive puff balls picked, wished and blown upon by children across the globe. Dandelion has a substantial taproot which will also bleed white latex if the skin is slashed. The starchy taproot is white inside, often with a woody core similar to parsnip.

Figure 2. The basal rosette pattern, common to many plants of the Asteraceae family, to which dandelion (Taraxacum spp.) belongs. © JPM, 2022.
Taraxacum officinale [basal rosette] 20221214_131058 sml.jpg


Figure 3. Leaf variation on old (1+ years, left) and younger (right) dandelion plants. © JPM, 2022.
Taraxacum officinale [leaf variation] 20221123_112632 sml.jpg


Figure 4. Dandelion bud and open flower. © JPM, 2022.
Taraxacum officinale [flowers] sml.jpg


Figure 5. Dandelion puffball, loved by children everywhere. © JPM, 2022.
Taraxacum officinale [puffball] sml.jpg


Figure 6. Flower stalks are hollow and bleed milky latex freely. Older stalks, especially those about to release seed, also start to take on a browish-red colour. © JPM, 2022.
Taraxacum officinale [hollow stem & sap] sml.jpg


Figure 7. Leaves also bleed milky latex when cut. © JPM, 2022.

Taraxacum officinale [latex & leaf hollow] 20221123_095603 sml.jpg


Figure 8. The substantial taproot of a medium sized dandelion. Note the reddening of the leaf stems near the taproot. © JPM, 2022.
Taraxacum officinale [taproot] 20221123_095524 sml.jpg


Figure 9. The taproot after peeling is white, starchy and very much resembles a parsnip. © JPM, 2022.
Taraxacum officinale [peeled root] 20221123_111038 sml.jpg


Culinary Uses

Dandelion is regarded as a 'superfood' by the US department of Agriculture due to its intense nutrient density. A 100g serve of dandelion (all parts - leaves, flowers, roots) will supply a significant portion of any human's daily requirements of iron, calcium, vitamins A, B6, E & K, and thiamine (Grubb & Raser-Rowland, 2012: 48-49). Dandelion flowers are high in alpha- and beta-carotene, and the roots contain inulin and lecithin, substances with medicinal properties we shall return to below.

All parts of the plant are edible, although the leaves, flower stems and taproot skins (basically all the parts containing the white latex) are quite bitter, requiring significant culinary reorientation to appreciate. The bitterness subsides substantially with cooking or the application of an acid, e.g. lemon juice (Apelian 2021: 60). Dandelion leaves can be added fresh, sparingly, to salads; I have enjoyed them as a salad substitute on home-made burgers during the Great Australian Lettuce Shortage of 2022, as well as chopped and mixed with egg (or tuna/salmon) & mayonnaise on sandwiches. They cook well in soups, stews, stir fries, quiches and pastries (e.g. spanakopita), adding a massive nutrient boost to any dish.

Figure 10. Pumpkin, sweet potato, carrot, dandelion and wattleseed soup, probably my craziest concoction to date. It was amazing! © JPM, 2022.
Taraxacum officinale [pumpkin & dandelion soup] 20221123_130702 sml.jpg


Roots can be baked whole (45 mins @ 180°C), although peeling reduces their bitterness immensely but at the cost of substance. They taste very much like roast parsnip. Some like to roast unpeeled roots until they turn crispy brown, virtually dehydrated, then grind them into a coarse powder resembling ground coffee and then use as a drink by adding boiling water in a mug or teapot (1/2 to 2 tsp per 250 ml). Roots harvested in autumn have the most nutrition as the plant prepares to survive winter by fattening the taproot with starches and minerals.

Figure 11. Roasted dandelion root. The black part is the woody core, which leaches out a resinous (but not unpleasant) colour during roasting. Peeled, the taste is very akin to roast parsnip with a faint bitter hint lingering on the palate. Bitterness is more intense if you do not peel them. © JPM, 2022.
Taraxacum officinale [baked root] 20221123_124503 sml.jpg


Medicinal Uses

Medicinally, dandelion was associated with liver conditions due to the 'Doctrine of Signatures.' The yellowing of the skin and eyes due to jaundice was to be remedied with the yellow flowers of dandelion and similar plants. Interestingly, the plant (especially the flowers and roots) are high in lecithin and inulin, carbohydrates that greatly improve liver health. Soy lecithin has been proven as a liver tonic reducing hepatitis and cirrhosis, which dandelion has even higher quantities than soy (Duke 2001: 192; Apelian & Davis 2020: 68-69), making it ideal for those seeking to recover from drug and alcohol additions (or toxic lipid-nanoparticle vaccinations) damaging that crucial organ. Apelian & Davis (2020: 69) suggest a Liver Tonic made from an extract of both roasted dandelion root and milk thistle (Silybum marianum) seeds, which reversed one of her patient's need for a liver transplant.

Dandelion latex is also a potent antifungal and antibacterial agent. It can be applied directly to ringworm, tinea, eczema, acne, warts, corns and skin cancers to help healing. Caution is advised, however - people who are allergic to plants in the daisy family (chysanthemum, marigold, ragweed etc) may break out in topical dermatitis when exposed to dandelion latex (Apelian & Davis 2020: 70). As covered above, the latex of the Russian species (T. kok-saghyz) is a known rubber substitute (Crampton, 2022). Rubber can be extracted from the roots by roasting and grinding them to powder (the rubber separates out), or by immersing roots in a 3% Sodium Hydroxide (NaOH) solution suspended in a water bath at 90°C (Göbel & Gröger, 2018).

Look-alikes

Dandelion can be easily confused with other plants that have similar jagged leaves growing in a basal rosette: catsear (Hypochaeris radicata), hawksbit (Leontodon taraxacoides), oxtongue (Helminthotheca echioides), and perhaps younger thistles (Sonchus spp.) and young wild lettuce (Lactuca serriola, L. virosa & L. saligna). In Australia, the native yam daisy or murnong (Microseris scapigera) has very similar flowers, but noticeably different lance-shaped leaves and round tubers. All of these weedy plants are edible and will be covered in detail in the rest of this series (except murnong, which belongs in my Australian Bush Tucker series).

Further Reading

Apelian (2021), Forager's Guide, p. 60.
Apelian & Davis (2020), Herbal Remedies, pp. 68-70.
Atlas of Living Australia, "Taraxacum." [LINK]
Bonetto (2020), "5 Recipes for Your Dandelion Weeds." [LINK]
Chevallier (1996), Medicinal Plants, p. 140.
Crampton, L. (2022). "Common and Russian Dandelions: Nutrition, Latex and Rubber." [LINK]
Deane (2012), "Dandelions: Hear them Roar!" [LINK]
Duke (2001), Edible Weeds, pp. 192-193.
Duke (2002), Medicinal Herbs, pp. 243-244.
Göbel, M. & M. Gröger (2018). "Turning dandelions into rubber: the road to a sustainable future." [LINK]
Grubb & Raser-Rowland (2012), Weed Forager's Handbook, pp. 48-53.
Low (1991), Wild Herbs, pp. 25-26.
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