Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Dandelion, Lion's Tooth

Taraxacum officinale, widely known as common dandelion, is a herbaceous perennial that can be found in temperate regions all over the world, in habitats with moist soils. The most popular feature of this plant is its fruits, furry spheres that are easily carried by the wind. Although it is generally considered a weed, common dandelion is actually edible and very nutritious.

I. Appearance and Characteristics 

Taraxacum officinale, the dandelion or common dandelion, is a herbaceous perennial flowering plant in the daisy family Asteraceae (syn. Compositae). The common dandelion is well known for its yellow flower heads that turn into round balls of many silver-tufted fruits that disperse in the wind. These balls are called “clocks” in both British and American English. The name “blowball” is also used.

The common dandelion grows in temperate regions of the world in areas with moist soils. They are very hardy plants, able to grow in a variety of environments, and are tolerant of crowding, extremes of temperature, and low moisture. As a result of this hardiness, in addition to its ability to rapidly propagate itself, the dandelion has become established over a wide range via human activity, originally being native to Eurasia, but can also be found across the Americas, southern Africa, India, Australia and New Zealand as a result of incidental or deliberate introductions.

It is most often considered a weed, especially in lawns and along roadsides, but the leaves, flowers, and roots are sometimes used in herbal medicine and as food.

Taraxacum officinale grows from (generally unbranched) taproots and produces several hollow, leafless flower stems that are typically 5–40 centimetres (2–15+3⁄4 inches) tall, but sometimes up to 70 cm (28 in) tall. The stems can be tinted purplish, they are upright or lax, and produce flower heads that are held as tall or taller than the foliage. The foliage may be upright-growing or horizontally spreading; the leaves have petioles that are either unwinged or narrowly winged. The stems can be glabrous or sparsely covered with short hairs. Plants have milky latex and the leaves are all basal; each flowering stem lacks bracts and has one single flower head. The yellow flower heads lack receptacle bracts and all the flowers, which are called florets, are ligulate and bisexual. In many lineages, fruits are mostly produced by apomixis, notwithstanding the flowers are visited by many types of insects.

The leaves are 5–45 cm (2–17+3⁄4 in) long and 1–10 cm (1⁄2–4 in) wide, and are oblanceolate, oblong, or ovate in shape, with the bases gradually narrowing to the petiole. The leaf margins are typically shallowly lobed to deeply lobed and often lacerate or toothed with sharp or dull teeth.

The calyculi (the cuplike bracts that hold the florets) are composed of 12 to 18 segments: each segment is reflexed and sometimes glaucous. The lanceolate shaped bractlets are in two series, with the apices acuminate in shape. The 14–25 millimetres (1⁄2–1 in) wide involucres are green to dark green or brownish-green, with the tips dark gray or purplish. The florets number 40 to over 100 per head, having corollas that are yellow or orange-yellow in color.

The fruits, called cypselae, range in color from olive-green or olive-brown to straw-colored to grayish, they are oblanceoloid in shape and 2–3 mm (1⁄16–1⁄8 in) long with slender beaks. The fruits have 4 to 12 ribs that have sharp edges. The silky pappi, which form the parachutes, are white to silver-white in color and around 6 mm wide. Plants typically have 24 or 40 pairs of chromosomes, while some have 16 or 32 pairs.

II. How to Grow and Care

Sunlight

Make sure your dandelions get at least six hours of sun every day when you’re growing them. Once they’re well-established, make sure that they can get plenty of shade to prevent the greens from getting too bitter if you plan to eat them.

Watering

Common dandelion grows best in consistently moist conditions, so the trick is to water these plants lightly and often, taking care to make sure that the soil is moist but not waterlogged. Check whether the soil is dry at a depth of 5 cm; if so, then it’s time to water again.

Fertilizing

Common dandelion grows in almost any type of soil but growing it in nitrogen-rich soil affords it the best chance to thrive. Dandelions can grow happily without the need for fertilizer. If they are being grown in a particularly low-nitrogen soil, you could consider adding a nitrogen-rich fertilizer.

Planting Instructions

Dandelion plants are prolific growers that are usually planted from seed. For a guide on how to grow dandelions, see the steps below.

  • Choose and prepare your planting spot. Dandelion seeds can germinate successfully in a number of different light and soil conditions, but they usually thrive in loose, well-draining, and fertile soil. While a sunny spot may seem like the obvious choice for a spot, try to choose a location with partial shade (or even full shade) if you’re growing dandelions to eat. A shadier spot will slow their growth and prevent the dandelion leaves from getting too bitter in the full sun.
  • Sow your seeds. Sow your dandelion seeds directly into your garden soil six weeks before the last frost of the spring. The ground temperature should be at least 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Plant your seeds a quarter of an inch below the soil surface and only lightly cover them with soil to help the sunlight germinate them. If you’re planting your seeds in rows, sow each seed a few inches apart and give the rows about a foot of space in between them.
  • Thin your plants. Dandelion plants can grow up to six inches tall in six-inch-wide clusters. Once your dandelions have sprouted a few inches above the ground soil, thin them back to about six inches between each plant to prevent overgrowth.

III. Uses and Benefits 

  • Culinary

Dandelions are harvested from the wild or grown on a small scale as a leaf vegetable. The leaves (called dandelion greens) can be eaten cooked or raw in various forms, such as in soup or salad. They are probably closest in character to mustard greens. Usually the young leaves and unopened buds are eaten raw in salads, while older leaves are cooked. Raw leaves have a slightly bitter taste. Dandelion salad is often accompanied with hard-boiled eggs. The leaves are high in vitamins A and C, as well as iron, phosphorus, and potassium.

Dandelion flowers can be used to make dandelion wine, for which there are many recipes. Most of these are more accurately described as “dandelion-flavored wine,” as some other sort of fermented juice or extract serves as the main ingredient. It has also been used in a saison ale called Pissenlit (the French word for dandelion, literally meaning “wet the bed”) made by Brasserie Fantôme in Belgium. Dandelion and burdock is a soft drink that has long been popular in the United Kingdom.

Another recipe using the plant is dandelion flower jam. In Silesia and other parts of Poland and the world, dandelion flowers are used to make a honey substitute syrup with added lemon (so-called May-honey). Ground roasted dandelion root can be used as a non-caffeinated coffee substitute.

  • Diuretic

T. officinale’s diuretic properties – believed to be a result of the plant’s high potassium content – have been well described, with the leaves of this plant having been used for this purpose in traditional Chinese medicine for approximately 2,000 years, with other regions of the world using the plant in the same way; in French, a common name for T. officinale is pissenlit, ‘a colorful description of its diuretic activity.’ A study conducted in 2009 noted ‘promising’ results regarding these diuretic properties, but that further studies would need to be conducted into the plant’s efficacy.

  • Herbal medicine

Dandelion has been used in traditional medicine in Europe, North America, and China.

  • Research

Since asexually-reproducing dandelions produce genetically identical offspring, they are often useful as subjects for scientific research. For example, dandelions are used in studies where genetic differences between subjects need to be minimized.

  • Education

Because of its worldwide distribution, familiarity, and presence in a wide variety of folkloric traditions, the dandelion has been highlighted as a valuable tool for educators seeking to help children of varying cultural and ethnic backgrounds connect to science through ethnobotany.

  • Other

Yellow dye colors can be obtained from the flowers but little color can be obtained from the roots of the plant. The latex can be used as a kind of glue.

  • In culture

Cultures worldwide tell stories about the dandelion and have culinary and medicinal uses for it. A Native American folktale tells the story of a golden haired girl who attracted the fancy of the South Wind. The South Wind was too lazy to pursue her, until one day he realized she had grown old and her hair had turned white. Supposedly, when the South Wind sighs over the loss of his chance to pursue the golden-haired girl, his breath sends the white-haired dandelion seeds scattering to propagate more golden-haired daughters.

IV. Harvesting and Storage

Dandelions can be harvested throughout the spring growing season. The longer that you leave dandelions to grow, the more bitter they taste. Dandelion blossoms should be picked when the flower heads are a full, bright yellow, which is usually right after they have opened.

Dandelion roots can be harvested anytime during their growing cycle, but it’s best to pick them between late fall and early spring. Dandelions are self-seeding, so if you wait too long to harvest, their seed heads will emerge and the wind will disperse the seeds to another location.

Here is an overview of how to harvest dandelions.

  • Choose a clean area for your harvest. If you don’t have a dedicated garden bed or container for your dandelions, make sure the area that you’re harvesting your dandelions from is free of animal waste or foot traffic damage. You only want to pick and consume the cleanest and healthiest-looking dandelion flowers. Avoid harvesting dandelions from areas that have been chemically treated with pesticides or herbicides.
  • Cover the area with dark fabric for a few days. A few days before you harvest your dandelions, cover the area you will be harvesting with some dark fabric. This blocks out the light and slows down the maturing of the dandelion leaves which can make them more bitter.
  • Snip your leaves and flowers. Snip the dandelion head just below the blossom using a clean pair of scissors, leaving a small bit of stem attached. If the blossoms are already open, put their stems in cold water to keep them from closing until you’re ready to use them. You can also snip away the young leaves from the center stem to use in salads.
  • Extract the plant. If you want to harvest the dandelion root, you’ll need to pull up the whole plant similar to how you’d regularly remove a weed. You can also use a digging tool to loosen the soil around the plant, which can make it easier to pull it up without snapping the roots. Keep in mind that the dandelion plant can still regrow as long as a piece of its root remains behind.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) Details

Common name Dandelion, Lion's Tooth
Botanical name Taraxacum officinale
Plant type Perennial
Growth rate Fast
Height 0 ft. 2 in. - 0 ft. 6 in.
Width 0 ft. 2 in. - 0 ft. 6 in.
Sunlight Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day)
Flower color Gold/Yellow
Leaf color Green