Monday, May 6, 2013


Can't Beat 'Em? - Eat 'Em!

© Dave Spier

What's your opinion of dandelions? Consider this: the young leaves (before the flowers appear) are edible, assuming you don't use pesticides or other chemicals on your lawn. The leaves grow in a rosette like the spokes of a wheel and average 20 per cluster. A large root system can support a double head that appears to have 40 leaves. The individual leaves are long and pointed, sometimes like an arrowhead at the tip, and coarsely toothed along both sides. The jagged teeth are often reflexed and may even point toward the center of the plant. Long ago, someone thought they resembled the teeth of a lion. In French, the name was "dent de lion" which morphed into dandelion. Other common names for this plant include blowball (a reference to the globular seed heads), lion's-tooth, wild-endive, priest's-crown and Irish-daisy.

The Common Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is a member of the Daisy family, also known as the Aster family and sometimes the Composite family. The complex flower head is a composite of numerous yellow rays designed to attract insects and a central disk of florets that produce the seeds. In exchange for transporting pollen, the blossom rewards insects with nectar. Bumblebees, butterflies and a host of other arthropods visit the radially symmetrical heads. What insects have you seen on dandelions?

Garden lettuce, Lactuca sativa, is a distant relative in the same family so it might be no surprise that dandelions are also food for people. Collect the young leaves and add them to a salad. They are rich in vitamins A, C and E plus iron, potassium and calcium. Slightly older leaves can be boiled to remove any developing bitterness and eaten like spinach. Young flower buds, still tucked down in the rosette of leaves, can be boiled and served with butter or they can be pickled. The buds can also be added to soups, stews and pasta dishes. The yellow flowers can be dipped in batter and fried like fritters. [A word of caution: the hollow flower stalks contain a white, milky latex that can irritate sensitive skin.] The heavy taproots can be slow-baked until brown and brittle, then ground and used like coffee in the manner of Chicory, another Composite. During the Great Depression, dandelions were an important part of the diet for many people. Likewise, in World War II, European country folk nearly eradicated this plant. Dandelions are native to Europe and were originally brought to this country for their food and medicinal value. Some homeowners would like to send these invasive aliens back.

Common Dandelion leaf and blossom

Worldwide there are about 60 species of dandelions. Many can reproduce asexually, meaning they are capable of cloning seeds without pollination. These populations are found in northern latitudes where they are presumably remnants of the Ice Age when insects may have been in short supply.

Regardless of how they are produced, the dandelion has a very effective seed dispersal system. After pollination (or cloning, as the case may be), the yellow flower head temporarily closes, then opens into an almost white ball of fluff. Each seed comes with its own parachute and the next wind will carry it on its way. A number of birds eat the seeds, and I would guess the goldfinch is among them, given the finch's fondness for thistle seed (still another member of the Composite family). Has anyone counted the number of seeds produced on one head?

Once established, the dandelion plant keeps its leaves flat to the ground, shading out anything beneath them while avoiding your mower blades above. Like any number of other plants, including certain ferns and garlic mustard, the dandelion emits chemicals that inhibit the growth of nearby vegetation, usually grass. The deep taproot resists attempts to pull the plant becasue it breaks near the surface and then grows a new rosette of leaves and new blossoms. The month of May is the peak flowering month in New York, but sporadic blossoms appear throughout the summer and late into fall, weather permitting.

If you can't admire the dandelion as a prolific survivor, then at least save your money and eat it. Given the rising cost of food, that's not a bad idea.

Corrections, comments and questions are always welcome at or connect through my Facebook page and photo page. There's also a community-type page for The Northeast Naturalist. Other nature and geology topics can be found on the parallel blogs Adirondack Naturalist and Heading Out.

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