AKA, “blowball, cankerwort, doon-head-clock, witch’s gowan, milk witch, lion’s-tooth, yellow-gowan, Irish daisy, monks-head, priest’s-crown and puff-ball, faceclock, pee-a-bed, wet-a-bed, swine’s snout, white endive, and wild endive.”
The dandelion (Taraxacum) is a common plant native to Eurasia and North and South America. The leaves are 5–25 cm long and form a rosette above its substantial tap root. Flower heads are singular on a hollow stem, that when broken exudes a milky colored form of latex. Rosettes can produce multiple flowering stems. Seed heads resemble “snowballs” and the seeds are dispersed through the air. Its English name Dandelion comes from the French “dent de lion” which means “Lion’s Teeth” (referring to the jagged edged leaves). Common dandelion is a ruderal species and one of the first to colonize disturbed lands. . Although most North American suburbanites view the dandelion as a weed, it is a very useful plant. Below we will examine the many ways that homesteaders can utilize this wonderful little plant.
An Edible Plant
Dandelions have been used for food since before recorded history. They are a nutrient dense plant, high in vitamins A, C and K, and a good source of calcium, potassium, iron and manganese. The leaves can be eaten raw or cooked. They are best harvested early when the leaves are young and tender. More mature leaves may be bitter and blanching can remove the bitter flavor. The roots can be consumed and ground. Roasted roots may be used as a caffeine-free coffee substitute. The English used this coffee substitute during the second World War when coffee was in short supply.
Wine and Jelly
Dandelion flowers can be used to make a wine that is highly prized in the rural areas of the United States. Here is a good recipe for making dandelion wine. The flowers can also be used to make a very attractive jelly in the spring. You can find out how to make it here.
Dandelions have a long history as a medicinal plant. The roots are the primary part of the plant used for medicine. In old Europe, it was cultivated for its roots and they were harvested in the second year of growth. According to The Rodale Herb Book, the roots were used as a diuretic, laxative, herpatic, antisorbutic, sialagogue, aperient, and stomachic. The Chinese regarded it as a blood cleanser, tonic, and digestive aid. It was also used as a poultice for snake bites. It’s use as a diuretic shows up in the common names for dandelion used throughout history. For example, the English folk name for dandelion was “piss-a-bed”.
A Dye Plant
Dandelions are great source of natural dye material. Both the leaves and flowers can be used to make yellow and greenish yellow dyes. They are best used fresh and a mordant is recommended. Use equal parts of plant material to fiber to be dyed. Dandelion is best for use on animal fibers. For more information see the book Wild Color.
Dandelions are one of the most important pollen sources for honey bees in the cold climate areas. Dandelions are one of the very first plants to flower and provide overwintered bees with much needed food to raise new brood in the spring. I have spent many hours watching them haul in loads of yellow pollen to their hives in late April and early May.
Beneficial Garden Plant
Dandelions have a deep tap root that brings up many nutrients and minerals from the sub-soil. It also attracts pollinators and produces ethylene gas which helps fruit to ripen. Dandelions are one of nature’s “secret weapons” to combat soil compaction. For this reason, it grows in highly compacted suburban yards, trying to break up the soil with its tap root and bring up nutrients that are deficient in the top soil. Sadly, the suburban lawn owners repay this fine little worker by poisoning it.
Although not a “homestead use”, another interesting use of the dandelion is that of rubber production. The plants secrete a milky latex liquid when broken open, but wild plants produce a very small quantity of it. A group in Germany has developed a cultivated variety that is suitable for commercial latex production. The rubber is said to be of equal quality to that of rubber from rubber trees.
As you can see, the dandelion is far from “just a weed”. If you’ve never used this wonderful little plant, I hope you will in the future.
You can find more North Country Farmer plant profiles here