What prolific gold-flowered plant is loved by children, helps mitigate drought, has powerful medicinal properties and is named for an apex predator?
The dandelion, of course! (Taraxacum officinale)
When I was young, dandelions were a sheer delight. In the spring their flexible milk-filled stems curved easily and we used them to make long interlocking chains. They went to seed so quickly that another pleasure soon arrived in the form of a puffball, seeds ready to be set sail by the wind or a child’s puff of breath. And as a school director I watched teachers weave dandelion garlands that young children happily wore like crowns.
Who else loves a dandelion?
Dandelions are also loved by those farmers who have observed the way they heal the soil, taking root in calcium-depleted and heavily compacted soils and sending their taproots deep in the ground to loosen the compaction and draw up calcium needed by other plants. Those roots have been known to grow 10 – 15 feet into the hardpack!
Sadly, heat and drought are part of our new normal and ecosystem restorers are learning new ways and rediscovering traditional ways to increase water infiltration to keep the soil moist. But the clever dandelion is built for the job. Its leaves funnel rain water to their center where it drains down into the deep hole the root has opened up. Plants are true ecosystem engineers!
The wonder of the plant’s generosity
In the springtime, the dandelion is one of the earliest flowering plants to appear in North America. The first beneficiaries of the plant’s early arrival are the pollinating insects because it’s the earliest plant they can sip on. But surprise, surprise, as you’ll see here, the dandelion doesn’t actually need to be pollinated because it can self-pollinate. It’s simply providing a gift to the insect world – and of course indirectly to us because we need those pollinators to ensure our own food supply.
Grieve’s Herbal published in 1931 says that 93 different kinds of insects had been observed feeding from the dandelion. The dandelion also plays an important role among honey-producing plants because it provides large quantities of nectar and pollen.
Humans also benefit directly from the plant’s arrival at the same time that we in the northern hemisphere are emerging from winter. The dandelion has unique medicinal properties that our bodies need just then.
Its use as a spring tonic, a cleanse for the blood and liver, has been known for a long time. The Chinese used the plant medicinally as early as the 6th century BC, followed by Arab physicians in the 10th century. In India it is cultivated expressly as a remedy for liver complaints.
The dandelion can grow almost anywhere from the tropics to the Himalayas, where it can grow at up to 12,000 foot elevation. In the mid-1600s, European settlers brought the common dandelion to eastern America and cultivated it in their gardens for food and medicine. The native Americans consequently called the plant “white man’s footsteps”.
The Dandelion as a dynamic accumulator
Dynamic Accumulators are often the first plants to colonize an area after a fire, or after an area of bare soil is uncovered. The term is used in the permaculture and organic farming literature to indicate plants that gather certain minerals or nutrients from the soil and store them in a more bioavailable form and in high concentration in their tissues, and then can be used as fertilizer or just to improve the mulch. As farmer Stefan Sobkowiak explains, they take hold and grow where they are needed.
Origins of the name
Dandelion is our magnanimous friend’s English name – a corruption of the French dent de lion, or lion’s tooth. The big jagged leaves were thought to look like large teeth. But the dandelion also has over 500 names or nicknames: blow ball, cankerwort, monk’s head, fairy clock, Irish daisy, swine snort, and wetabed are just a few examples.
Use in herbal medicine
Dandelion root is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Ayurvedic Medicine, and healing practices of several North American tribes (Bella Coola, Algonquin, Aleut, Cherokee, Iroquois). The leaves are used to stimulate the appetite and help digestion. The dandelion flower has antioxidant properties and may also help improve the immune system. Herbalists use the root to detoxify the liver and gallbladder, and dandelion leaves to help kidney function.
So who doesn’t love the dandelion?
Quite the useful little plant, this unassuming herb that we call a weed. Even corporate America loves the dandelion: in the 1950s fertilizer and pesticide companies were developing products and used the dandelion as the poster child for what they could “make go away”. Convincing people that they should not love the dandelion proved to be very profitable. But it’s past time now to allow nature to do its healing work.
So let’s let this ubiquitous little flowering friend help us – the way it seems to want to.
By Paula Phipps