Updated: Jul 21, 2020
Dandelions are so common they need no description. They're often one of the first plants children recognise, for the fun of blowing their "clocks" and making wishes. Their abundance is perhaps partly why we undervalue them and generally see them as a noxious weed. When you look beyond that label, it turns out that they're really useful for us and wildlife.
I now get quite excited when I wander out into the garden and see a troop of their golden blooms, usually being fumbled by a bumble bee.
They belong to the Asteraceae family along with daisies and sunflowers, and their Latin name is Taraxacum officinale. The first part of the name is derived from Greek: "Taraxos" meaning disorder, and "akos" meaning remedy. The word officinale literally means "of or belonging to an officina", the storeroom of a monastery, where medicines were kept.
This gives us a clue as to how valuable our ancestors considered this plant to be. The English name is a corruption of the French "dent de lion" - meaning lion's tooth, the Welsh name "dant y llew" is true to the original. Their French slang name "pis en lit" refers to the belief that children picking them would wet the bed, presumably connected to their diuretic properties.
So were the ancient herbalists onto something?
The health benefits attributed to dandelions is too long to list here, but include potentially helping the body cope with diabetes, heart disease, cancer, sunburn, detoxing, period pains and weight loss! (Medicinal) They are also highly nutritious, loaded with vitamins and minerals (Nutritional). There are numerous videos on YouTube extolling the virtues of dandelions, with many people considering them even more valuable than gold!
OK I might try some, are they good for anything else?
Poultry and rabbits will often graze dandelions preferentially, instinctively drawn to their rich nutritional and medicinal properties. They are "dynamic accumulators"; their deep roots mining minerals (especially potassium and calcium) from lower down the soil profile and bringing them to the surface. This can help neutralise the pH of the soil, and as the leaves break down make nutrients available to more shallow rooted species. Their powerful roots can also help de-compact soils. Their flowers are very attractive to bees and hover flies, bringing both pollinators and pest control to your garden, as hoverfly larvae have a voracious appetite for aphids. They are food for a number of moths and butterflies and their caterpillars (Lepidoptera) including the impressive Giant leopard moth! (in North America)
Wow how did we lose this wonderful secret knowledge? If I wanted to try some how do I start?
Try adding a few flowers and young leaves to a salad, which are more pleasant to eat raw. Older leaves are quite bitter but can be cooked like any greens, and roots can also be cooked as a vegetable. Dandelion wine is a welcome addition to many homebrewers' cellar, whilst dandelion and burdock evokes nostalgic memories of endless childhood summers.
For simple and surprisingly rewarding results try dandelion coffee. Surprising because I love coffee, and this is actually a pretty decent substitute;
Scrub a few good sized dandelion roots (as wide as a little finger),
Chop finely and leave to dry in the sun/greenhouse for a day or two,
Roast in a heavy pan over a low heat, or laid out on a baking tray,
When well roasted (black and smoking!), leave to cool then grind with a pestle and mortar.
Two to three heaped teaspoons of the powder boiled up with water gives a tasty and aromatic, caffeine free, alternative to coffee.