Dandelions are the joy of small children who make chains and gold crowns or blow seeds into the wind. On the other hand, they are the bane of those who want a smooth green lawn. In the Bolingbrook area, the dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, to botanists, is one of the most prevalent—shall I say “weeds” or “wildflowers”? It is a determined and aggressive plant, spreading itself through lawns. But you knew that already, of course. But did you know:
- The name “dandelion” comes from the French Dent de Lion, meaning “lion’s teeth.” Dandelions were called “lion’s teeth” in Latin and Greek before that name came into the French language. Most people think the name comes from the sharp points of the leaves.
- Estimates of the number of seeds produced by an individual dandelion differ; the number probably depends in part on the size of the flower. The lowest estimate I’ve seen for seeds produced per head is 54 to 172; another sources says 125 to 300. Several sources say that a single dandelion plant can produce 2000 seeds in one year. The wind can blow the seeds on their little parachutes (properly called pappus) for many miles, and they can survive long journeys floating and blown about in the ocean.
- The dandelion is native to Eurasia. Beginning in the 1600s, English, French and Spanish settlers all brought dandelions to the North American continent for medicinal uses, and perhaps for food and for making dandelion wine. Beekeepers are said to have brought them to this continent so they could continue to make dandelion honey.
- The earliest record of dandelions comes from Roman times. Medicinal use dates back at least to the 11th century, when Arabic physicians determined that dandelions were helpful in combating certain liver conditions. In the centuries before researchers discovered vitamins and minerals, no one understood exactly how dandelion leaves helped prevent or cure certain ailments; they just knew that they did.
- The leaves of young dandelion plants are a source of fiber, iron, calcium, magnesium, zinc, beta carotene, and vitamins B, C, D, and E. They are eaten in salads, added to stews and even pancakes, and cooked like spinach (though they have to be cooked a little longer).
- Dandelions are cultivated by farmers in some areas, to control the quality of the plants used for food and herbal medicine.
- You may have heard of dandelion wine, but did you know that dandelion beer is made in Canada, or that dandelion roots are used to make a caffeine-free coffee substitute? Did you know you can make tea from the roots, leaves or flowers of young dandelion plants that have not been subjected to lawn chemicals? Directions for all three kinds of dandelion tea can be found on the Internet.
- Mme. Roseline Fontaine, who lives in central France, makes dandelion jam each spring. She says it takes 365 flowers to make three 1-pound pots of the jam. You can read more about her at http://articles.latimes.com/1995-11-09/food/fo-960_1_white-wine.
- Dandelions are beneficial to some wildlife. They are favored by several kinds of butterflies as well as numerous insects. Their seeds provide food for small birds. Rabbits munch their leaves.
- Dandelions themselves do little damage to the ecosystem. Their roots may actually help to aerate the lawn or field. However, the many gallons of chemicals used (often unsuccessfully) to eradicate them cause the deaths of many small birds and seriously pollute the ground water.
- In “the old days,” dandelions are said to have served as clocks in some rural communities. When the blossoms opened in the morning, it was time to go to work. When they closed up in the evening, the workday was over and it was dinner time. It was also said in some communities that if a child could not blow all the seeds off the dandelion in three or fewer attempts, it was time to go home; Mother was waiting. Blowing the seeds away is not too difficult, so this test may have revealed that the child was getting tired and needed rest or for a meal.
- Dandelions play a role in many stories composed over the centuries. One of my favorites is the story by Hans Christian Anderson, explaining why the apple blossom has a pink tinge. You can read how the sun convinced the apple blossom of the worth of dandelions at http://www.readbookonline.net/readOnLine/6044/.
- Dandelions have long been beloved not only by children, but also by poets from James Russell Lowell (who described them as “an Eldorado in the grass”) to Walt Whitman (who wrote of the dandelion’s “trustful face”). Even today, poets laude the dandelion, as seen in the poem below by a Wisconsin writer.
Love the dandelion,
Its beauty comes directly from God.
It grows unattended,
Without the care it takes to grow the rose.
But can its beauty be less
When grasped in a child’s hand offered as a gift of love.
~ Caye Patterson Bartell
[This poem is used with the permission of the author, who retains copyright.]
© Wilda Morris 2012