Common Dandelion - The Lion's Tooth


From ancient times to the present, common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale Weber in Wiggers #3TAROF) has been considered one of the most delectable of garden vegetables. People have carried the seeds from place to place for cultivation since before written history (9). According to legend, Theseus ate a dandelion salad after killing the Minotaur. Romans ate the plant as did the ' Gauls and Celts when the Romans invaded the North (9). The AngloSaxon tribes of Britain and the Normans of France continued to use the plant as food and as medicine to control scurvy and as a diuretic; it was planted in the medicinal gardens of monasteries (9).

No early records exist of its importation into the United States, and this has been suggested as evidence that its use was so prevalent in Puritan times that dandelion seed, along with seed of other essential plants, was carried to the Colonies as part of every goodwife's garden supply (9). More than most `weeds,' therefore, dandelion has been spread by deliberate cultivation as a food.


Dandelion is a rarity in that humans can eat all parts. The young leaves are boiled like spinach or eaten raw in salads; they taste best when blanched by growing in shade. The roots also are peeled and sliced for salads or are eaten roasted or fried. The yellow blossoms can be eaten outright, deep fried or mixed into pancakes, or made into wine. (I have discovered that the raw blossoms are slightly bitter. They also turn the saliva a startling yellow for several minutes.) Boy Scouts occasionally feast on the ripe seeds, minus the plumes (7). Dandelion leaves can be made into a healthful tea, and the roots can be dried and ground, like chicory, for a coffee-like drink; dandelion is indeed a member of the chicory tribe (Cichorium) within the thistle family (Asteraceae).

Dandelion is an exceptional source of iron, copper, potassium, and other minerals (8). It contains 0.5% phosphorus - half again as much as spinach, and twice as much as cabbage. It is comparable to these two vegetables in its content of calcium (1.6%) and magnesium (0.5%) (2). It is also a good source of Vitamins A and C (8). Though dandelion has been cited as a cure-all for everything from abscesses to warts (5), its only 'guaranteed' medicinal use, aside from its nutritional properties, is as a mild diuretic. The digestive stimulant properties of dandelion are attributed to an "undefined bitter principle designated taraxacin" (15), which is found in the latex and in the roots. Circa 1942, more than 45 000 kg (100 000 lb) of dandelion roots were imported annually at 10 to 25 cents per kg (4 to 10 cents per lb), "notwithstanding the abundant homegrown product" (6). This weight in roots still was being imported into the United States for medical purposes as recently as 1957 (5). Improved large-leaved dandelion varieties are available specifically for cultivation as an annual fall and spring vegetable (1). Imagine your neighbors' delight on discovering a plot of this herb in your backyard vegetable garden!


The Gallic Normans who conquered England in 1066 called the plant "dent-de-lion," meaning `tooth of the lion' (9), possibly referring to its pointed, deeply serrated leaves. Perhaps the plumous, globose seedhead also reminded some of a lion's mane. Or maybe the explanation lies in the report of a 15th-century surgeon, who wrote that dandelion was as powerful as a lion's tooth in fighting off certain diseases (8). However the name began, Saxon serfs soon corrupted it to 'dandelion,' and the rest is history (9). Dandelions have been called lion's-tooth, cankerwort, Irish daisy, monk's-head, priest's-crown, puffball, blowball, and milk-, witch-, or yellow-gowan (3). The Chinese called it "earth-nail" (9) in reference to its sturdy taproot. It has been called "clock flower," because children `tell time' by blowing at the seed head, and "piss-a-bed" (in France, "pissenlit") in honor of its diuretic qualities (4).

The lion's-tooth motif has been consistently repeated in dandelion's common names in several languages and in many of its varied scientific classifications. In his Species Plantarum of 1753, Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) classified dandelion as Leontodon taraxacum; "leontodon" meant `tooth (Greek "odontos") of a lion (Latin "leontos")' (11). When Friedrich Heinrich Wiggers (1746-1811) described the genus Taraxacum, Johann Anton von Guldenstaedt (1745-1781) reversed the classification of dandelion, calling it T. leontodon. Georg Heinrich Weber (1752-1828) created the current classification in 1780 in his Primitiae Florae Holsaticae. Renee Louiche Desfontaines (1750-1833) reclassified it as T. dens-leonis (again, Latin for `lion's tooth') in Flora Atlantica in 1800. Gustav Karl Wilhelm Hermann Karsten (1817-1908) classified it as T. taraxacum, presumably as the type species of its genus, in Deutsche Flora in 1880 (3). Dandelion classification took an unfortunate turn in 1778 when Jean Baptiste Antoine Pierre Monnet de Lamarck (1744-1829) reclassified it as T. vulgare in Flore Francaise (vulgare is from the Latin. vulgari, meaning general, common, or usual.) Franz von Paula von Schrank (1747-1835) followed suit in his Baiersche Reise, published in Munich in 1786. However, T. vulgare has been relegated to synonymy.

Taraxacum may come from the Greek "tarassein," meaning `to disturb or alter,' in reference to the plant's reputed effects on the blood when used medicinally (12). It is more likely a `Latinization' of the Persian "tarashqun" (11) or "talkh chakok" (16), meaning 'bitter potherb' (8). The Arabic "tarakhshaqun, " or wild chicory, is yet another likely source (16). Officinale is from the Latin "officinalis, " meaning `of or pertaining to an office or shop' (11); this word later came to refer to pharmacies (16). Thus, the specific name implies 'of use to man' or `of pharmaceutical value' (16).


Dandelion is considered a serious weed problem in Austria, Italy, Poland, and Turkey. It is a principal weed in eight countries, including the United States, a common weed in 21 countries, and is present in most other nations (10). There are 50 to 60 species of Taraxacum, and hundreds of variations have from time to time been described as species (1). For example, in 1898 Britton (3) declared T. officinale as distinct from T. taraxacum, which he considered the `proper' dandelion; he concluded that officinale was probably indigenous to the United States (3). As far as I can discover, no members of the genus Taraxacum are poisonous, but whether other members share the true dandelion's beneficial qualities is unknown. The very similar Russian dandelion (T. kok-saghyz Rodin.) has been cultivated in the U.S.S.R., where rubber is obtained from its latex.


Dandelion is a stemless perennial herb with a long taproot and milky sap (latex) (14). It forms a rosette of somewhat succulent deeply and irregularly lobed leaves, 5 to 25 cm (2 to 10 inches) long (14). Flower heads are yellow, 2.5 to 5 cm (1 to 2 inches) across, atop hollow stalks (14). Mature fruit form pappi with many soft, white hairs (14); these comprise the familiar globose `puffballs' which " ' children usually dispersed and which are borne efficiently by wind and water. Dandelion can reproduce vegetatively if the taproot is broken into pieces (14); thus, the whole taproot must be removed from the ground if the plant is to be eradicated physically (4). This can be difficult, as the taproot is contractile - it "locks in" to the soil and contracts as the rosette grows, keeping the growing point near the soil surface (13). Dandelion is thus one of the few weeds after which a tool has been named: the dandelion spade, a common garden hand tool with a small forked spade end which succeeds occasionally in extracting the plant from the ground.


1. Baily, L.H., and E.z. Bailey. 1976. Hortus Third. Macmillan Publ. Co., Inc., New Tork

2. Bennett, E. 1934. Why dandelion? Science 80(2067):142.

3. Britton, N. L., and A. Brown. 1898. An Illustrated plan of the Northern United States, Canada and the British Possesions. Charles Scribner's Sons, New Yak.

4. DeBray, L. The Wild Garden. 1978. Mayflower Books, Inc., New York. 5. Duke, J. A. 1985. CRC Handbook of Medicinal Herbs. CRC Press, Inc., Boca Raton, FL.

6. Georgia, A. E. 1942. A Mamul of Weeds. The MacMillan Company, New York.

7. Harrington, H. D. 1967. Edible Native Plants of the Rocky Mountains. The University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

8. Held, A. W. 1969. How to Enjoy Your Weeds. Frederick Muller Ltd., London.

9. Haughton, C. S. 1978. Green Immigrants. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., New York.

10. Holm, L., J. V. Pancho, J. P. Herberger, and D. L. Plucknett. 1979. A Geographical Atlas of World Weeds. John Wiley & Sans, New York. 11. Jaeger, E. C. 1944. A Source-book of Biological Names and Terms (2nd Ed). Charles C. Thomas, Springfield, IL.

12. Jepson, W. L. 1925. A Manual of the Flowering Plants of California University of California Press, Berkeley.

13. King, L. J. 1966. Weeds of the World. Interscience Publishers, Inc., New York.

14. Robbins, W. W., M. K. Bellue, and W. S. Ball. 1970. Weeds of California Calif. Dept. Agric., Sacramento.

15. Tyler, V. E.1982. The New Honest Herbal. George F. Stickley Company, Philadelphia

16. Zimdahl, R. L. 1989. Weeds and Words. Iowa State Univ. Press, Ames.