Spring Flowers: Common Dandelion

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Who:

Common dandelion

Taraxacum officinale

Asteraceae (Aster) family, Cichorioideae (Chicory) subfamily

What:

One of the most ubiquitous and abundant cosmopolitan “weeds” on planet Earth; all parts are edible.

Potent nutrient-dense perennial plant with a wide range of culinary and medicinal uses.

Where:

A better question to ask might be, “where are dandelions not found?”

Especially common in lawns, gardens, roadsides, edges of trails and woodlands; not opposed to growing between cracks in the sidewalk.

When:

T. officinale is found through nearly all seasons of the year for most of its range, though it is best harvested early in spring.

Gather greens as early as possible in late winter/early spring before they become too bitter and unpalatable as they mature.

Harvest flowers whenever they’re present, usually for much of the spring and into early summer. 

Roots are best when dug as early as possible in the springtime, as soon as you notice leaves begin to emerge.

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Why:

Dandelions are among the most useful — and until very recently in history, beloved — edible wild plants we have at our disposal. Europeans quickly forgot that we intentionally brought them to North America because of how much we once valued them as food and medicine.

When the greens first emerge in early spring, they’re considered to be a “tonifying” agent for the liver, helping the internal organs to adjust with the changing seasons.

The root can be made into a very nutritious tea that’s great for aiding and relieving the digestive system.

How:

Leaves are easily harvested by plucking or cutting at the base. Depending on growing conditions — temperature, sunlight, moisture, maturity — the greens may be too bitter for some to consume raw. In that case, simply sautéing will neutralize some of the more bitter notes. Younger dandelions growing in cooler, wetter, shadier conditions will always be more palatable.

These young, tender early-spring greens are ideal for eating raw.

These young, tender early-spring greens are ideal for eating raw.

Separate the yellow composite flowers (I think of this as “flower fluff”) from the green bracts as you gather to avoid introducing bitterness where you’d prefer the pure sweetness of the flowers. As with violets, dandelion flowers are great for kickstarting fermentation. They can also be used to make dandelion wine.

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Flower buds may be gathered before they open and prepared as a substitute for capers.

Roots are best prepared through a multi-step process of rinsing, slicing, and dehydrating; chopping, roasting, and grinding; then steeping in boiling water for a hearty, earthy tea / “coffee” substitute. Check out this website for more details: https://www.eatweeds.co.uk/dandelion-root-coffee-recipe

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Key characteristics:

  • “Lion’s tooth” (dent-de-lion in French) leaf margins

  • Yellow composite inflorescences composed entirely of strap-shaped ray flowers — no disk flowers present

  • Naked, hollow flower stems that exude a milky sap when cut

Taraxacum officinale . From Köhler's  Medizinal-Pflanzen,  1883

Taraxacum officinale. From Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen, 1883

Lookalikes:

You may have heard of a ’false dandelion’ before — this common name can actually refer to several plants from the Asteraceae family, all of which are edible. 

Common lookalikes include Cat’s ear species (Hypochoeri spp.), Chicory (Chicorium intybus), shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) and hawkweed species (Hieracium spp).

Rather than describe each species one by one, it may be simpler to list the traits that distinguish the ‘true’ dandelion from its lookalikes—

  • Only dandelions have hollow stems

  • Dandelion leaves have variable toothed edges with teeth pointing to the center of the plant

  • Dandelions have no hairs on leaves or stems

  • Dandelions have no leaves on stems, and the stems are not branched

  • Dandelions have only one flower per stalk

For a detailed comparison of dandelion vs. cat’s ear, check out this website: 

http://identifythatplant.com/dandelion-and-cats-ear/

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