Out of all of the plants that are considered weeds in the United States, the humble dandelion holds a place of distinction. Known for its stubborn nature of invading newly cleared land and hard to eliminate tap root, dandelions are a bane to gardeners who continually battle over the same area of unearthed land for the right to grow. Dandelions are also a highly nutritious plant and have been and are still used as herbal remedies and as medicines. The introduction of the dandelion into North America is a wonderful lesson in history and also sheds some light on a plant that was once regarded as staple in early colonial life.
Dandelions are known botanically as Taraxacum officinale and are members of the daisy family, Asteraceae. The name, “dandelion” is a misspronounciation of the French name dent de lion, which translates to “tooth of the lion”. The tooth of the lion refers to the dandelion’s leaves which are serrated and look much like teeth. Dandelions are thought to have originated in Europe and Asia where humans have cultivated them for hundreds of years. The typical “wild type” dandelion has a rosette of toothed leaves originating from a central growing point or crown at the ground level of the soil. From this crown, buds numbering from one to five will emerge on tall stems of ten to twenty inches tall. These buds open up into the unmisstaken golden-yellow aster-like flowers which will then transform into the characteristic seed head puff ball. The average size of the dandelion plants can be from six inches wide and tall to 24 inches wide and tall or more if growing conditions permit large growth. European cultivars of dandelions will have even larger leaves as these selections are used as cutting greens.
It is estimated that dandelions have been in cultivation since the Roman times. For the last thousand years, dandelions have been used as remedies for illnesses including liver problems, gastrointestinal distress, fluid retention, and skin ailments. Besides being a medicinal plant, the dandelion is a tasty and highly nutritious vegetable. All parts of the plant can be eaten including the root and flowers. Leaves can be eaten as salad greens or steamed with beets, flowers are used to make dandelion wine, roots are boiled and steeped in a tea or roasted and made into a coffee substitute.
During the 17th century, dandelions were heavily used as food and medicine. Early colonists who came to the new settlements of the American colonies brought many items from their homeland that they thought they would need in this new land. One of those items was the dandelion.. It was from this very early introduction in American history that dandelions began their spread across uncharted territory. It was the common people looking for a new life who brought this plant with the simple need for something familiar in a strange new place. Many Native American peoples also developed their own uses of the dandelion after it naturalized. Since their introductionin to North America, dandelions have colonized the rest of the world and are just as abundant as other introduced species such as house sparrows and starlings.
Dandelions grow best in full sun in areas that have been recently or constantly disturbed such as construction sites, flower beds, newly weeded gardens, and lawns. Although they are non-native, these plants are not considered a threat to exhisting flora as they are not able to compete in areas where native plants are well established.
Dandelions can be thought of as foundation plants for a group of people who had not yet found their own foundation in a new and overwhelming place. Although not as widely used as medicine and a source of food as they once were in North America, many cultures around the world still employ this plant in customary practices that date back hundreds of years.
Pojar, Jim, Andy MacKinnon. Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Vancouver: Lone Pine Publishing, 1994.