The Story of the Dandelion, Part One

The Story of the Dandelion, Part One

Image by Angelica Vaihel from Pixabay

The story of the humble dandelion draws on a wide spectrum of our history. Unquestionably, it offers an abundance of nutritional value to our diets. In the past, this made it a plant of great importance. It really is a powerhouse. Heralded for the multitude of ways it can contribute to our lives, the dandelion stands apart as a plant of great value in its entirety, from its roots to its myriad golden petals.

Although, nowadays, there are few nods of appreciation for the dandelion. Ideas range from a calm disregard to a tenacious effort to simply rid their yard of its presence.

It’s a story extending from the large estates of the aristocracy to the beginning of the pharmaceutical industry. Taking a look at many medicine cabinets or night-stands, pharmaceuticals have come to be a customary part of our lives. So, it’s little surprise they had a hand in the complex history of the dandelion.

In this two-part series, I’ll spend the first part extolling the virtues of our golden-maned plant. And in the second part, I’ll go into what, for many, went into its fall from grace. Yet, be sure, however despised by some, dandelions will remain tucked in the hearts of others.

What’s in a Name?

In the world of science, the common dandelion is part of a genus known as Taraxacum. from the family Asteraceae. Comprised of a current estimation of 60 macrospecies1 and 2800 microspecies,2 it is a large genus. Two of the most common are Taraxacum officinale and T. erythrospermum, the latter differs as it is red-seeded.

Neither terms particularly roll off the tongue. So, it has acquired countless other names around the world. In the province of Newfoundland & Labrador in Canada, they’re lovingly known as posies.

Image by Rob Leake from Pixabay.

However, it’s also known by numerous other tags. Some are respectful with a touch of the lyrical, such as Irish Daisy, Fairy Clock, Monk’s Head, Priest’s Crown, Lion’s Tooth, Telltime, Clock Flower, White Endive or Wild Endive.

Others are a little more disparaging and off-putting, including Milk Witch, Piss-a-bed, Swine’s Snout, Cankerwort, Blowball and Puffball. These latter two are a reference to the stage when the seeds are ready to disperse. Inspiring, a wide range of emotions, our choice of term would be no doubt reliant on our perspective.

Origins of the Dandelion

The flower has very ancient origins. It’s believed to have first evolved about 30 million years ago in Eurasia. Used later by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, it also played a role in traditional Chinese medicine for more than a thousand years. With the arrival of the eleventh century, Arabic cultures were drawing on its medicinal merits, treating difficulties of the kidney and liver.

The name dandelion stems back to the fourteenth century, when, in 1373, “dent-de-lion” was mentioned in a French herbal. In English, this means “lion’s tooth.” However, it was in 1363 when the particular word “dandelion” was actually used. Later, it began to travel to the west as the powers in Europe began to explore the world.

Ecology

While the dandelion prefers loose, rich and healthy soil—any plant would—this plant is more than all right with less ideal conditions. Soil may be compacted, rocky or dry, but to the dandelion, it’s just a temporary challenge.

The dandelion is the essence of adaptability. It’s able to grow in a range of altitudes, from sea level to 10,500 feet. It’s a merry inhabitant of meadows and open grass. However, change the scenery and it’s equally at home emerging through the cracks of a rocky cliff or those within an inner city side-walk.

Photo by Nikola Johnny Mirkovic on Unsplash.

While gardeners may cringe when confronted by the dandelion’s characteristic taproot growing deep into the ground, it is a boon for the soil. The taproot is able to bring nutrients to the surface. The roots loosen the soil, creating a micro-climate in which earthworms and arthropods, such as insects, can thrive and further loosen the soil.

It’s adaptability also means the dandelion does equally well in fertile or drought conditions. Whether in shade or situated where the heat of the full sun is beating onto the ground, the dandelion can grow and develop.

Health

For thousands of years, the dandelion has been revered for its medicinal qualities. Dandelion root is actually a registered drug in Canada and functions as a diuretic. It’s no surprise then that it’s the most frequently recorded plant in folk medicine. The dandelion can help alleviate problems tied to an enormous range of conditions.

If you’re suffering from kidney, stomach, or liver disorders, call on the dandelion. How about skin irritations, heartburn, gall bladder problems, diabetes, arthritis, anaemia and constipation? Try the dandelion. And for the odd toothache, fever, wart or dandruff, the dandelion might just be able to help.

Photo by Nastya Dulhiier on Unsplash.

It’s high in vitamins K, C and A, along with minerals such as calcium, potassium, zinc, and iron. While we’re at it, the dandelion can also function as a mild laxative and diuretic. The dandelion has also been used widely for a range of irritations such as skin conditions, eczema, hepatitis and jaundice.

High in lecithin, the dandelion can apparently be also used to reduce cholesterol, thus playing a role in preventing strokes and heart disease. Clearly the dandelion is one of the “go to” plants for numerous health complaints.

Food & Colouring Our World

The great virtue of dandelions is the entire plant, from leaf to root, is edible. The flowers are particularly useful for making Dandelion wine and jam. If the roots are roasted, they stand in well as a substitute for coffee. The leaves can be eaten raw or cooked, used in our favourite soups, salads and smoothies.

Image of roasted dandelion roots (By Zero-X at Flickr – English wikipedia, Public Domain.

In soups, dandelions simply play the role of the greens. Whereas with dandelion chips, it involves a brief roast in the oven. With dandelion pizza, the leaves and flowers are strewn over the pizza contributing to its culinary virtues and also adding a touch of colour. Really, the dandelion can be used in a host of recipes.

And not only can we eat the dandelion, it can also help in other ways. Dandelion flowers function well as a dye for clothing or other fabrics and yarns. The dandelions yield a powdered yellow sheen.

Dandelions can also play a role in more unexpected ways. Natural rubber is used in a large quantity of products. Thus, any potential sources for this product are being continually analysed. In fact, researchers are exploring the Russian dandelion as a source of natural rubber.

Given its wide range of applications, the dandelion literally has something for everyone. One would think a plant so clearly useful and valuable, especially in terms of health and well-being, would be forever held in high regard. Not so.

In the early twentieth century, many remained resolute in their support for the contributions nature could provide through plants such as the dandelion.

And in part two, we’ll look at the circumstances that came together to spell the precipitous fall of the dandelion, its re-designation as a “weed.”

Sources:

Adamant, Ashley 2020 “60+ Dandelion Recipes ~ Food, Drinks, Remedies & More” https://practicalselfreliance.com/dandelion-recipes/

Browning, Annette 2023 “Natural Dye from Plants: Yarn Dyeing with Dandelions” https://www.fiberartsy.com/natural-dyeing-dandelions/

Dyer, Mary 2017 “Dandelion Plant History And Facts” Gardening Know How https://blog.gardeningknowhow.com/tbt/dandelion-plant-history-facts/

Down Garden Services 2023 “Dandelion” http://downgardenservices.org.uk/dandelion.htm

Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft 2015 “Natural rubber from dandelions” https://phys.org/news/2015-06-natural-rubber-dandelions.html

Heritage of Newfoundland and Labrador 2023 “Malnutrition in Newfoundland and Labrador” https://www.heritage.nf.ca/articles/society/malnutrition.php

Hunter, Candace 2023 “Dandelion History, Folklore, Myth and Magic” The Practical Herbalist https://thepracticalherbalist.com/advanced-herbalism/dandelion-history-folklore-myth-and-magic/

Kantham, Chris 2023 “How Rockefeller founded modern medicine and killed natural cures” World Affairs https://worldaffairs.blog/2015/10/20/how-rockefeller-founded-modern-medicine-and-killed-natural-cures/

Pharmaphorum 2023 “A history of the pharmaceutical industry” https://pharmaphorum.com/r-d/a_history_of_the_pharmaceutical_industry

Soschner, Christian 2020 “A Brief, Economic History of the Pharmaceutical Industry” Medium https://medium.com/illumination/a-brief-economic-history-of-the-pharmaceutical-industry-8feb603be4e3

the1millionproject 2020 “The Origin of Compulsory Schooling” Medium https://t1mproject.medium.com/the-origin-of-compulsory-schooling-cbef6a07777d

Velasquez, Jennifer 2023 “Uncovering The History Behind The Name ‘Dandelion’” Shuncy — Love the Green https://shuncy.com/article/why-are-dandelions-called-dandelions

Wikipedia 2023 “Taraxacum” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taraxacum

Winger, Jill 2022 “18 Dandelion Recipes” The Prairie Homestead https://www.theprairiehomestead.com/2014/04/dandelion-recipes.html

Winters, Chris 2023 “Garden History — How Dandelions Went From Being Sought-After Medicinal Plants To Pesky Weeds” https://12tomatoes.com/dandelion-history/

Endnotes

1A large and usually polymorphic biological species markedly discontinuous from other members of the same taxonomic genus as another plant or animal.

2A small usually localized population slightly but effectively differentiated from related forms.

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