Common Name: Dandelion, Blowball, Faceclock – The leaves of the plant are serrated with long points that resemble the teeth of a lion. In French, teeth are “dents” and lion is the same as in English. The “teeth-of-the-lion” therefore translates as “dents-du-lion” or, as a calque word, dandelion. A second credible etymology is that the “teeth” are the florets of the yellow composite flower, resembling as they do the teeth of the lion of heraldry. Ironically, in France, the dandelion is known as pissenlit, which literally means to urinate (pisser) in the bed (lit); the dandelion is noted for its use as a diuretic.
Scientific Name: Taraxacum officinale – The generic name is likely from the Arabic tarakhshaqun which is from the Persian, tark hashgun, or wild endive; the dandelion was widely used as a salad green like the endive An alternative etymology is the Greek taraxis meaning confusion and akos which means remedy to refer to the long term use of the plant for medicinal purposes – to “remedy confusion.”. The species name is from the Medieval Latin word officina which originally meant storeroom and evolved over time to mean a specialized herb store, what we now know as a pharmacy. The term officinale is applied to any plant that has pharmaceutical properties.
Potpourri: The dandelion in native to Eurasia and has been introduced into many other geographic areas, notably North America where it is considered a noxious weed (however, it is listed in the USDA database as both native and introduced). It is widely distributed and recognized globally for its use as a potherb and for its use in the treatment of a number of medical conditions. The diversity of its common names in different European languages is a reflection of the ubiquity and universal use of the plant. Carolus Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy, originally assigned it to the genus Leontodon to refer to the leonine dentation of the leaves – this carried over to most of Europe, from the dente-de -leone in Italian to löwenzahn in German. Alternatives range from Finland, where it is called voikukka meaning butter flower for its color, to Hungary, where it is called kutyatej meaning dog milk for the white sappy exudate that comes from the stem and root – it is a globally recognized species.
The extent of the dandelion’s global range is testimony to its evolved propagative success. A primary reason is that species of the genus Taraxacum for the most part reproduce asexually, a process that is called apomixis (which translates literally from the Greek as “away from mixing”). Apomixis, also known as apogamy, is the botanical equivalent to parthenogenesis in animals; in both cases it is an alternative evolutionary survival strategy. The advantage of apomixis is that the plant can produce prodigious quantities of offspring, as there is no requirement for pollen or to wait for a pollinator; the amount of energy invested in each seed is also reduced. A second advantage is that all of the offspring are essentially clones with identical attributes that promote survival. The disadvantage is the lack of genetic diversification that promotes long-range survival against adverse environmental vicissitudes; the majority of plants and animals – those that have evolved and survived – are sexual. What is especially curious about the dandelion is that it also flowers and produces pollen, leading botanists to speculate that the shift to apomictic behavior is a relatively recent adaptation.
The dandelion is a composite flower; the characteristic yellow-rayed blossom is a collection of individual florets. Flowering is prevalent in the early spring and again in the early fall, the flower heads remaining open during the day and closing at dusk in spring; they close at midday in the fall. The flower heads open for several days and then remain closed for about two weeks before opening again to release the seeds. It is during this period of quietus that the yellow rays of the flower metamorphose into a delicate ball of fluff. The common name “blowball” is given to the dandelion for its appearance during this evanescent stage of its life cycle. It is also called “faceclock” or simply clock due to the childhood practice of blowing on the ball until all of the seeds are removed – the number of puffs providing the hour of the day. When all of the seeds were gone, the bare knob at the top of the stem looked like a tonsured head of a monk, the name “Priest’s Crown” was accordingly given to the dandelion. In Russian, the dandelion is called одуванчик (pronounced oduvanchik) which translates as “thing you blow on.”
Dandelion seeds are contained in individual indehiscent (not opening at maturity) fruits called achenes that are attached to a parachute like tuft called a pappus with a stalk called a beak. The word pappus is derived from papa and conveys that the fluffy protuberance resembles the wispy gray hairs of age. The combination of the achene at the bottom of the beak suspended from the pappus affords an excellent means of wind dispersion. The pappus expands when the humidity drops below 77 percent and a wind velocity of only 4 knots is sufficient to keep the seeds aloft. Each dandelion floret apomictically produces a seed so that there are between 54 and 172 seeds per flower; a single plant can produce over 2,000 seeds in multiple heads. It has been estimated that a dense stand of dandelions can produce about 240 million seeds per acre. The seeds have no dormancy and typically become lodged and germinate in rock crevices. When the dandelion grows, it puts down a taproot that can extend up to 10 feet underground, though 6 to 18 inches is more common. The leaves spread in a rosette that blocks sunlight to adjacent competing vegetation and funnels rainwater down its center to supply the taproot.
The dandelion has been used as a medicine for centuries. In the 6th century pu gong ying was listed in Chinese medical references as a treatment for alimentary canal problems and to enhance the production of breast milk. Arab physicians used the tarakhshaqun or “wild endive” as a drug during their transcendence in the field of medicine in the 10th and 11th centuries. The English herbalist Nicolas Culpepper commended the dandelion as having “opening” and “cleansing” properties, to be used for treating the liver and spleen, likely because the yellow color was associated with bile treatment according to the Doctrine of Signatures that prevailed in the 16th century. The use of dandelion for medicinal purposes passed to North America with the European colonists; the “compound elixir of Taraxacum” was listed in the US Pharmacopoeia from 1888 to 1965.
Though many of the folk medicine uses are unproven and likely unwarranted, dandelion leaves and roots have demonstrable benefits for some conditions. Most notable among these are its use as a diuretic, the French name pissenlit attests to this application (it is sometimes called pissabeds in England and piscialletto in Italian). Dandelion leaves are listed by the German Commission E as a treatment for loss of appetite and for dyspepsia (indigestion); dandelion root is prescribed for use as a diuretic and to treat bile flow disturbances. The limited experimental testing that has been conducted has demonstrated that the chemicals in the dandelion are beneficial in the lowering of blood sugar (hypoglycemia) and as a diuretic, contributing to weight loss. There has been some interest in its use in the treatment of obesity. The active ingredients are a bitter, crystalline substance called Taraxacin and an acrid resin called Taraxacerin.
Dandelion is an excellent potherb, one of nature’s best sources of vitamin A – thirty percent more than an equal measure of carrots. The leaves, known colloquially as dandelion greens, can be eaten raw in a salad or cooked. In addition to vitamin A, they are an excellent source of vitamin C and have more iron and calcium than spinach. One cup of dandelion greens provides 1.5 g protein, 5 g carbohydrate, 19 mg Vitamin C, 7,700 IU of vitamin A and 103 mg calcium with only 25 kcal. Dandelions are used in a variety of beverages including wine, coffee, and a soft drink – all having the purported effect of stimulating digestive function and as a tonic for the liver.