Dandelion: a ray a sunshine for bees and humans alike

This week I look into the lovely Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) as it’s starting to emerge in people’s lawns, and I’ve spotted a few in the ditches.

Dandelions belong to the Asteraceae family of plants – the Daisy family, which comprises 32000 species and includes Sunflowers, Thistles, and Chamomile. Flowers belonging to this family are characterized by a single flowerhead composed of many tiny flowers - sometimes over a hundred ‘florets’, which are surrounded by rays of longer petals. The “aster” in ‘Asteraceae’ refers to the resulting star-shaped construction of the flowerheads belonging to this family. Dandelion comes from the French dent-de-lion, a ‘lion’s tooth’ that alludes to the jagged shape of the leaf. It is native to Europe and Asia, and grows in lawns, on roadsides, and on disturbed banks and shores of waterways.

Dandelions grow from a single taproot and produce upright, hollow stems that are filled with sticky white sap and typically grow 5-20cm tall. The leaves form a basal rosette, are smooth and deeply lobed with pointy ends. The plant produces bright yellow flower heads from March to October; they close over during cloudy weather and at night-time and are held on a single stem. The flowers mature into spherical seed heads containing many single-seeded fruits that resemble miniature parachutes, each one attached to a little seed ready to be carried away by the slightest breeze.

Dandelions are among the first colonisers of waste ground. They help to stabilise soil conditions, attract other species into the area and pave the way for the development of a rich, stable ecosystem. The long central taproot of the dandelion is particularly effective at drawing nutrients from deep in the soil. When the plant dies, the nutrients in the leaves are released back into the soil and made available to other plants. Allowing Dandelions to grow in the garden and harvesting the leaves as compost material or mulch is an excellent way of recycling nutrients in the soil and keeping the garden fertile.

Many insects rely on the Dandelion as a food source for themselves and their larvae. Several native Butterflies and Moths lay their eggs on Dandelion leaves and the bright yellow flowers, with their generous stores of nectar, are a magnet to pollinating insects like Bees and Hoverflies. The seed heads are also a valuable food source for seed eating birds like Goldfinches.
You can obtain yellow dye from the Dandelion flower, and the young leaves make an excellent salad and can be used as a green vegetable. Dried leaves are a common ingredient in many digestive and herbal drinks and are used for making herb-beer, including a Dandelion stout. The flowers can be made into dandelion wine, which has a reputation as an excellent tonic, and the dried roots, when roasted and ground, make an effective substitute for coffee.

Salves made from the dried flowerheads of the Dandelion are excellent for dry and cracked skin, and the anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties of this native herb help to aid the relief of muscle and joint pain, including pain caused by arthritis. I have a few tins of Dandelion salve available in my shop. Head over there to get this luxurious ointment straight to your letterbox.

Is there something you love about the Dandelion? Or you have a particular memory attached to it? Let me know in the comments! xx

📷 by Greg Hume, Chiara Marchesan, Marco Almbauer and Lauren Guillery

Illustration by Elizabeth Blackwell

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