Wild Flower of the Week
Dandelions are not popular among gardeners but do currently brighten many roadside verges. They are in the plant family that we used to call Compositae (now Asteraceae) as they all have flower heads composed of many smaller florets. Most in this group are daisy-like with a central disc surrounded by a ring of ray florets. Dandelions, however, only have ray florets.Dandelions, though covered by the heading Taraxacum officinale, are a group of over 200 micro species that often need to be looked at under a microscope to identify them. They are apomictic i.e. capable of producing seeds without fertilisation. Plants growing from these seeds are clones.
The abundance of dandelion micro species mean that there are always some in flower at any given time of the year. Although there is only one flower on each leafless stalk, many stalks arise from a single rosette of leaves. They don’t all rise at once, so there is always at least one stalk ready to set seed when the gardener is away!
The flower heads close at night, and can produce around 2,000 wind-dispersed seed. This is the “clock” that children traditionally blow on. Dandelions have deep taproots and any piece left in the ground can regenerate.
Dandelions have many traditional uses. They have diuretic and laxative properties and have been used as a tonic; to treat rheumatism; and as a blood purifier. Young leaves can be used in salads. Blanched hearts (obtained by earthing up) can also be eaten. The flower heads are used to make dandelion wine, while the bitter roots can be dried to make a substitute for coffee, which was common during the Second World War. Dandelion and burdock was popular drink with temperance groups as it is non-alcoholic, however the drink that you buy today rarely contains either plant. It is made with artificial flavourings and is often carbonated. There is at least one company still making a drink containing extracts of both plants, although its main ingredients are sugar and pear juice.
The name ‘dandelion’ comes from the French ‘dent-de-lion’ (lion’s tooth) taken from the shape of the leaves. The English nick-name ‘pissabed’ and the French ‘pis-en-lit’ are from the diuretic effects of the plant.