Quoddy Nature Notes – Dandelions

The subject of any of my columns is whatever comes to mind or inspired by whatever I see or otherwise sense.   After this inspiration I usually consult my own books and search web pages to insure the correct scientific name and any unusual characteristics, etc., then begin writing. Certainly dandelions (probably from the French dent-de-lion , or tooth of lion),  are  very apparent this year.  The common dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, is not native to North America, but was introduced by the Mennonites into Pennsylvania, the pilgrims brought the dandelion to Massachusetts and the French snuck it into Canada.  Dandelions were an indispensable part of the diet and pharmacy of Europeans, and the early pioneers even brought  dandelions on their westward migrations. They were so successful in this endeavor that dandelions are firmly established in all states of the US and all provinces of Canada, and even Greenland. There are a few species of dandelion that are native to North America, but apparently the pollen from the introduced plant has an adverse effect on the capability of the native plant to set seed, and the natives are generally now rarities.  The seeds of the common dandelion are produced asexually in a process called apomixes.  Thus all of our dandelions of the T.officinale variety are clones.  If this is so, why do dandelions produce nectar to attract pollinators?  None of my references answered.

Dandelion, a flower that doesn’t get the appreciation it deserves.

Dandelions are members of the Sunflower family, and most consulted information about dandelions is how to get rid of them.  We generally are of the mindset that our trimmed lawns and parks and golf courses should not be home to these cursed weeds from away and much money, energy and gallons of herbicides goes into their eradication.  It is interesting to note the change in our thinking of this plant.  Dandelions are one of the few plants that are edible all year round.  The young leaves that sprout in the spring are the first wild greens of the year that I can enjoy.  After the flowers come out they are too bitter for my taste.  The flowers however, can be dipped in batter and fried for an interesting snack.  The flowers are also used to make one type of dandelion wine.  The roots, after a good cleaning, can be roasted and ground and make a reasonable caffeine free coffee substitute.  They are best if harvested between late fall and early spring.  Besides people food, dandelion provides forage for animals.  Cattle, horses, rabbits and woodchucks seem to enjoy the leaves at any stage.

While there have been few extensive scientific studies of the medicinal values of dandelions, they have been used by herbalists for thousands of years. Certainly it is known that dandelions are a very good source of vitamins A, B complex, C and D, and other necessary trace elements such as zinc, iron and potassium.  The dandelion flower is an antioxidant, although not as effective or tasty as our blueberries.  Dandelion leaves are a mild diuretic, and this quality has generated some interesting nicknames.

Although dandelions are considered safe and beneficial, as with any food or herbal, some precautions should be taken.  Be careful of allergic reactions, especially the latex sap may irritate the skin.  If you are on any medication be sure and check with your health care provider.  And finally, if you are trying to get rid of dandelions, as most of you are, go easy on the ‘ROUNDUP’.  Preliminary studies indicate this type of chemical can be detrimental to the spawning capabilities of amphibians.  My frogs will like you better if you’re careful.