A little history
Before Europeans came to North America, the dandelion we know so well- Taraxacum officinalis- was non-existent here. (There is a rare dandelion native to California,Taraxacum californicum). Common dandelion is likely native to Asia, where it is still an important remedy in Chinese Medicine. Dandelions had spread throughout Europe before written history began. The entire plant is edible, and there are records of its use as food and medicine by the Greeks, Romans, and Anglo-Saxon tribes.The Celts may have been the first to ferment the blossoms, making dandelion wine. In Japan, over 200 dandelion cultivars are used as ornamental plants. Japanese florists use white, orange, black, and copper varieties of the flower in their arrangements.
Dandelion's common name derives from the leaves' jagged appearance. The Normans called it dent de lion, or "lion's tooth." English speakers twisted the name into what we know today. The plant's botanical name, however, reflects its long history of medicinal use. The genus name comes from the Greek taraxos for "disorder"—and akos for "remedy." The species name, officinale, refers to its widely accepted use in medicine.
Indeed, dandelion was an important plant for the Puritans migrating to New England. So why wasn't it included in colonial accounts of horticulture in the 1600s? According to Claire S. Haughton's Green Immigrants, "The dandelion was not an economic plant, but a common green for the stewpot, a 'dosing herb.' And so its seeds were among those each woman was expected to take with her for the family's garden plot." Though much of written history documents trade and financial dealings, dandelion serves as a reminder that a plant's (or person's!) value does not necessarily depend on their monetary contribution to society.
After forests were cut, little dandelion fruits traveled like Mary Poppins via fuzz umbrellas to newly cleared areas. Garden space was no longer devoted to this wild, readily available plant.
Dandelion leaf is bitter-- more so as the season progresses. Bitterness has been called a lost flavor in American culture. As herbal medicine teacher CoreyPine Shane points out, "Beer and coffee are our last remaining bitters. And when you add cream and sugar to coffee, you lose the bitterness." In fact, we are losing more than flavor when we exclude bitterness. Tasting bitterness stimulates salivation, gastric secretions, and intestinal peristalsis. Bitterness can also stimulate secretion of bile for proper digestion of fats. Healthy digestion improves nutrient absorption, and has even been shown to improve immunity and mood (Romm).
Dandelion leaf is also used to remove excess fluids from the body. According to David Winston's Medical Herbalism, "Dandelion leaf is a powerful diuretic, with an action comparable to that of the drug furosemide. The usual effect of a drug that stimulates kidney function is loss of vital potassium from the body, which can aggravate a cardiovascular problem... Dandelion leaf, however, is not only an effective diuretic, but also one of the best natural sources of potassium. It is thus an ideally balanced remedy."
If you aren't looking for this diuretic effect, no problem. Skip the large doses of tincture (alcohol extract) and use it like the highly nutritious food that it is. Add some fresh dandelion leaves to your salad or stew, mixed with other veggies.
The root of dandelion is sweeter and richer than the leaf. Just like burdock root, dandelion root is an excellent source of inulin, a prebiotic. Prebiotics are complex, fibrous carbohydrates that pass to our intestines only partially digested. Our beneficial gut flora are nourished as they finish the job.
Dandelion root is a lovely liver supporter. A happy liver can promote effective digestion, hormone balancing and healthy skin. Herbalists have also used the root to ease arthritis symptoms. It may help by reducing pressure in the joints by removing excess fluid, increasing nutrient absorption, and/or modulating inflammation (de la Foret).
Dandelion root makes a tasty, caffeine-free "coffee substitute." During the Civil War, southerners used herbs like dandelion and yaupon holly while coffee and other imports were cut off. For simple instructions for roasting and simmering your dandelion root beverage, visit this LearningHerbs webpage.
Before using dandelion medicinally, talk with a practitioner if you are taking a medication or other herbs. Be sure to harvest in chemical-free lawns and fields.
Lawns, Gardens, and Farming
Though not native, dandelions offer benefits for gardens and agriculture. Haughton writes, "[Dandelion's] long taproot is nature's way of aerating the ground for the short grass roots, thereby encouraging greener lawns and greater beauty. It also brings up from the depths elements that are not available to shorter-rooting plants." Interestingly, dandelion flowers also exude ethylene gas at sunset-- the same gas given off by ripening fruit. Dandelions have been used in orchards to increase the rate of ripening.
Finally, herbalist Rosalee de la Foret makes an excellent point in her new book,The Alchemy of Herbs: "Because this is such a delicious and medicinal plant, it completely confounds me that so many people despise it. Instead of rushing out with their harvesting tools to enjoy this free food and medicine, they spray harmful chemicals to kill them. Many of those herbicides are known to promote cancer, poison our soils and waters, and kill countless birds and bees." If we are going to rid our lawns of dandelions, may we consume every last one!
de la Foret, Rosalee. The Alchemy of Herbs. 2017.
Romm, Aviva. Herbs for Digestion: The Bitters. Natural MD Radio.
Winston, David. Medical Herbalism. 588-89.