The common dandelion scarcely needs description, since it is common statewide in all types of disturbed habitats and occurs nearly everywhere in the world. The bright yellow blossoms (densely compound clusters of florets) and deeply lobed leaves are familiar to just about anyone who goes outdoors. This perennial herbaceous plant blooms January–December. It was introduced to America long ago from Europe. Gardeners are familiar with its deep taproot and sticky, milky sap. Children are familiar with the fluffy, ball-shaped seedheads, with each seed having its own tiny “parachute” to fly away on the wind — or when we blow on them. Because we all know this plant, we skip the formal description here.
Similar species: You might be surprised to learn there is another, closely related species of dandelion that occurs in our state. Called the red-seeded dandelion (T. erythrospermum), it, too, was introduced long ago from Europe. The only way to identify it with certainty is to examine mature fruits (seeds), which in this species, are dull brick red to reddish or purplish brown (not olive-colored to greenish brown, as in the common dandelion). In Missouri, the red-seeded dandelion is less common than the common dandelion; plants tend to be smaller; leaves are more likely to have all the leaves deeply lobed all the way to the midvein; and these plants are more likely to occur in sandy soils.
Also, Missouri has “false dandelions” in the genera Pyrrhopappus and Krigia, and a species called prairie dandelion (Nothocalais cuspidata), as well. They look a little bit like common dandelion but are often found in natural habitats.
Habitat and Conservation
Introduced from Europe long, long ago and now common nearly globally. Occurs on banks of streams and rivers, ledges of bluffs; also in lawns, gardens, cemeteries, crop fields, fallow fields, pastures, roadsides, railroads, and other open, disturbed areas.
Is dandelion a Missouri wildflower? Although it was introduced from Europe centuries ago, it has been a part of our flora so long most people don’t know it’s not native. There are many other Missouri wildflowers that were introduced centuries ago from Eurasia that are now naturalized, common, and widespread. Henbit, dead nettle, shepherd’s purse, field cress, yellow rocket, black mustard, bird’s-foot trefoil, black medic, white and yellow sweet clovers, chicory, ox-eye daisy, English plantain, mullein and moth mullein, Queen Anne’s lace, and many, many other Missouri wildflowers are in this same category.
Dandelions flowering in lawns are both welcomed by urbanites as a sign of spring and cursed by homeowners, who have helped to fuel the herbicide and lawn care industries through their desire to produce the umblemished “great American lawn.”
Dandelion leaves are highly nutritious and are a good source of vitamins and iron. Missourians from a wide range of ethnic heritages eat dandelion greens in a variety of preparations. For example, German-derived folk, including Amish and Mennonites, typically prepare a sweet-sour dressing with bacon grease and serve it warm over the greens to wilt them; this is often topped with chopped hard-cooked egg and crumbled bacon. Italian-derived people may dress dandelion green salads with lemon juice, olive oil, and salt. These are just a few examples.
Ozark hillfolk, and many other rural people, are eager to get outside in springtime and make up a nice fresh green salad of a variety of edible greens. After a winter of eating root vegetables and canned food, the fresh greens are especially delicious.
If you are wanting to harvest dandelion greens, take care to pick them from areas free of pesticide residues. Rinse well in water; some people do several rinsings and soakings. Some people reduce bitterness (and turn them into cooked greens) by boiling them in up to three separate changes of water. Younger plants are more tender and less bitter than older ones. Short, close-cropped lawn dandelions are tougher and more bitter than ones from fields where they have been “let go.” Some sources suggest picking dandelion greens in early spring, before the plant has flowered. Mixing dandelion greens into a salad with different kinds of sweeter greens helps offset the bitterness, too.
Dandelions are becoming popular as a field green among gourmets, as more Americans begin to appreciate bitterness in their foods. Dandelions are slowly expanding into a minor organic crop in parts of the northern United States. They are frequently sold in mesclun salad mixtures, which contain several fancy lettuce cultivars as well as leafy greens from various species of mustards, chicories, and goosefoots/pigweeds.
The flowering heads can be added to pancake batter. Remove the bitter green parts from the base of the flower heads. Break up the individual florets of the flower heads and stir them into the batter. Adding a bit of grated orange peel and orange juice to the batter makes these extra nice.
Another idea for the flowering heads is to dip them in batter and fry them to make fritters, sweet or savory.
The flowering heads (again, most people use just the yellow corollas from the flowering heads) are mixed with sugar and various flavorings, then allowed to ferment, to produce the sweet, clear-yellow alcoholic beverage known as dandelion wine. Many oldtime Missourians made this wine in their basements and enjoyed it as a “tonic” or sipped it as a cordial. See if there's a recipe passed down in your family.
Author Ray Bradbury’s nostalgic 1957 novel Dandelion Wine uses the compression of gallons of flowers into bottles of golden-sweet dandelion wine as a symbol. In the book, he poetically condenses the many simple joys of summer in a small Midwestern town into a series of loosely connected stories.
Dandelion roots occasionally have been used as a chicory (and coffee) substitute and are also a source of the sugar substitute inulin.
Old-time Ozarkers used dandelion roots as a “spring tonic,” usually roasting, grinding, and brewing it like coffee, or preparing it like tea. Sometimes it was mixed with sassafras, chicory, and similar tonic roots. The point of a spring tonic is a diuretic and laxative effect, which supposedly helps rid the body of toxins, strengthens the liver, and “thins the blood.”
Apparently, dandelions were first introduced to North America in the early 1600s. Seeds were brought on the Mayflower and dandelions were planted as a food crop. As dandelions spread across our continent, Native Americans were quick to realize their usefulness as food and medicine.
In Europe, where dandelion has an even deeper past, the plants were historically used as a laxative, diuretic, “blood cleanser,” and tonic.
The dandelion is the “poster child” of the many, many plants and animals that Europeans brought with them (for better or for worse, intentionally or by accident) in past centuries and introduced to nearly all parts of the world. In a very similar way, European thought and culture was also introduced to all corners of the globe. Just as people all over the world may not know if a plant they’ve seen all their lives is native or was introduced long ago, the same may be true of ideas and patterns of thinking that were disseminated during the age of exploration. If you’re interested in learning more about the biological, microbiological, historical, and cultural ramifications of European colonization, plenty has been written on the subject.
Dandelions provide nectar and pollen to a wide variety of insects. Because they start blooming early in spring, they are one of the first food sources for bees, butterflies, moths, flies, beetles, and more.
Finches and sparrows eat dandelion seeds.
The milky sap in dandelion’s roots, stems, and leaves helps protect it from many insects that would otherwise chew on it. The sticky latex gums up the mouthparts and digestive systems of insects.
Many moths use dandelion as the food plant for their caterpillars, including the virgin tiger moth, great leopard moth, European yellow underwing, and lesser black-letter dart.
Many people have used the word weedy to describe this plant. If you set aside the value judgments the term implies, you can recognize two basic traits that define “weediness”: vigorous growth, and ready propagation (reproduction). In this sense, the common dandelion is the “perfect weed,” elegant (or scary) in its adaptiveness:
- Dandelions grow rapidly and survive in a variety of soil types and climates, especially in disturbed soils.
- Once established, a dandelion plant, with its deep taproot, can survive nearly any injury that does not dig up or destroy the tip of its taproot. If you only cut off or injure the root, it just grows more plants from the taproot.
- Dandelions adapt to a wide variety of growing conditions. In bright light or heavily trampled or close-cropped situations such as a lawn, they grow and bloom at a very short height. In lower light or among taller grasses, they grow and flower at taller heights, with longer leaves and stems.
- Dandelions compete with nearby plants in a variety of ways. For example, the dense basal rosette of leaves spreads out and smothers nearby plants, and the leaves function like a funnel to channel rainwater to the base of the dandelion.
- Each plant produces many, many seeds all during the growing season.
- Dandelion flowers do not need to be cross-pollinated to produce viable seed. They produce viable seed without any fertilization at all. And even relatively young, undeveloped seeds can be viable.
- Dandelion seeds are small, light, remain viable for a long time, and can be distributed long distances in many ways: On the wind; by water, in streams, lakes, floodwaters, or excess water running down the street curb when you wash your car; or attached to your pant leg or the fur of animals. They can survive passage through the digestive systems of herbivores and be deposited in new locations in the manure.
These are just some of the traits of dandelions that make them such perfect (and many would say, awful) lawn and garden weeds. Fortunately, and perhaps surprisingly, dandelions are not generally considered invasive, because they do not usually invade and overwhelm healthy natural communities such as well-established native prairies, marshes, and woodlands. Instead, they tend to be limited to ruderal habitats — places with disturbed soils such as roadsides, construction sites, gardens, and lawns.
Think about all the common “weeds” you know, and you will probably see the same “weedy” characteristics that help the plant grow vigorously and propagate readily.
Finally, the word “weed” is loaded, because most people know a weed as “a plant that is growing out of place” or “an unwanted plant.” You might also think of it as a “nuisance plant.” Ecologists have been preferring the less judgmental term “pioneer species” for the kinds of plants that are usually the first to colonize disturbed or denuded ground. Other pioneer plants include several types of annual grasses, several kinds of mustards (such as shepherd’s purse), plantains, lamb’s quarter, henbit, pigweed, purslane, and so on.
On the bright side, pioneer species perform an important ecological role in succession. Bare, dug-up soil would wash away without these early colonizers to help bind and protect the soil. Over time, other kinds of plants, shrubs, and eventually trees become established. But the pioneer species are first.