Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale)

Many related plant species are referred to as “dandelions,” but the one we are concerned about owns the Linnean species name “Taraxacum officinale.” ‘Taraxacum’ encompasses a large genus of plants collectively known as dandelions. ‘Officinale’ is a Medieval Latin term used to describe plants that had/have a traditional medicinal use. What we think of as the common dandelion was brought to North America by the emigrating English Puritans because it was used for medicinal purposes. To chase the name further, ‘dandelion’ is derived from the French name ‘dent de lion’ meaning ‘tooth of the lion,’ for the jagged leaf edges.

Among the many medicinal claims, parts of the plant were used to treat fevers, boils, eye problems, diarrhea, fluid retention, liver congestion, heartburn, and skin ailments. Leaves were seen as aiding digestion due to its bitter principles thought to stimulate salivary and gastric juices. Roots were thought to improve bile flow which would help alleviate liver congestion, bile duct inflammation, hepatitis, gallstones and jaundice.

The plants are perennials meaning that they keep coming back year after year, in your lawn and elsewhere. Each plant has a central taproot. If the top of the plant is removed the remnant taproot will generate a new plant. Depending on the size of the taproot, quality of soil and amount of sunlight, a plant can be a few inches across and sport a few flowers on short stems, or at the large end of the size scale, leaves can be more than a foot long, flower stems towering above that, and one plant sporting 15 to 20 flowers, each up to two inches across.

Dandelion preparing to make more dandelions
The bright yellow flowers quickly morph into perfect orbs of white. Each seed, attached to the core of the flower, has at the other end a slender stalk and a fluff of white. When the seed is mature, the connection of the seed to center becomes frail, so that even a light gust of wind carries the seed away. The seed heads go by many names, among them puff-ball, blow-ball and clockflower. The last is for the belief that the number of blows it takes to blow off all of the seeds is what time it is. Not literal time, silly. Fairy time.     

Dandelions are edible, but perhaps over-hyped. First leaves of spring, picked before the plant has flowers, can be washed and incorporated into salads, imparting a mildly bitter taste. Served separately, it helps to blanche the leaves to remove the water-soluble bitter compounds, then serve as is, or sauté as one might cook spinach. Roots of the larger plants can be unearthed, washed, chopped, gently pan-browned or low-temperature roasted, then covered with boiling water and allowed to steep for 20-40 minutes. Or just buy dandelion root tea at any health food store. There are also recipes for batter-fried flowers, dandelion wine, dandelion jelly… Note that while exuberant websites state that “Everything, from the flower all the way down to the roots, is edible.” that is not exactly true. The stems exude a milky sap that contains latex. Some parts of the plant can interfere with the metabolism of certain drugs. Thus, might be wise to consult with one’s primary care physician before consuming dandelion products on a regular basis.  

Lastly, dandelion flowers can be used for ephemeral art projects. If a computer is handy, look up Andy Goldsworthy dandelions, selecting to view images. To make your own, start by picking LOTS of flowers. Snip the stems. Ideally, collect the flowers in a bucket half-filled with ice water, else they quickly turn a dark orange and wilt. Quickly cover something – a boulder, a small child – with a layer of flowers and take photographs.     

Mark had a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle made of a photo of a dandelion seed head centered above an out-of-focus, green and brown background. This was not a good idea.


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