Dandelions are a part of American popular culture, but we have a complicated relationship with them. Most of us recall blowing on the puffy seed heads of dandelions and watching the white fluff drift in the wind. They’re the object of epic pesticide battles on manicured lawns and golf courses. And they are survivors! It’s estimated that a single acre of dandelions produces as many as 250 million seeds.
At least a thousand years before dandelion seeds hitched a ride on the Mayflower for use in Puritan gardens, this exceedingly common plant had been documented in traditional Chinese medicine texts for its many properties, including as a diuretic and detoxifier. The Chinese also embraced dandelion as a nutritious and tasty culinary plant, making use of the leaves, flowers and roots. Dandelion has been a source of food for most of human history and can be found growing on every continent except Antarctica. Cultivated varieties are most common in Eurasia, where it is believed to have originated.
The Chinese may have been the first to explore dandelion’s marvelous properties, but by the 11th century, Arabic medicine had incorporated dandelion as well. In his “Canon of Medicine,” published in 1025, the influential Muslim physician Ibn Sina (or Avicenna, as he was known in the west), wrote extensively about Taraxacum as a treatment for wounds, abscesses, headache and other ailments.
It’s possible that the genus name Taraxacum is derived from the Arabic word “tarashaquq,” which Persian physician and scholar Al-Razi used in the 9th century, describing dandelion’s similarity to chicory. The word may also derive from the Greek words taraxos, meaning “disorder,” and akos or “remedy.”
Pink dandelions, Taraxacum pseudoroseum, and white dandelions, Taraxacum albidum, are refined varieties of the iconic perennial. The bubblegum pink blooms make this darling little wildflower from central Asia an eye-catching addition to the pollinator garden. In their native range, you’ll find the pastel blooms with their lemon-cream centers growing in meadows, and along roadsides and forest edges. And like their more pedestrian yellow counterparts, the leaves, roots and blooms of pink dandelion are edible, with a flavor that is a bit less bitter.
In Japan, dandelions had a moment among florists and horticultural societies that formed just to develop and promote spiffy new varieties — all told, some 200 of them, in white, orange, black and copper colors.
White dandelion, a wildflower of southern Japan, is held in high esteem, celebrated by the Japanese as a useful food and medicinal plant. Its delicately bitter leaves are boiled into ohitashi, blanched greens in a savory broth. The snow-white blooms are lightly battered and fried for tempura, and the long tap root is favored for both its culinary and medicinal benefits.
Dandelion leaves and buds have long been a part of other cuisines, too: In Kashmiri cooking, it is sauteed in oil and garlic, then lightly tossed with spices. Slovenians love it as a salad green and often combine it into potato salad. Greeks boil it, then dress it with olive oil, salt and lemon juice for a dish called Horta Vrasta (literally, “boiled greens”).
Dandelion flower petals are made into wine; roasted and ground, the roots are used as a coffee substitute. It’s an ingredient in root beer, and in dandelion and burdock soda, a British drink with a cult following.
Dandelion is a rich source of vitamins A, B complex and C, as well as minerals like iron, phosphorus, potassium and zinc.
And across the globe, it has celebrated medicinal uses. Indigenous North Americans used it in many different ways. The Bella Coola of Canada brewed the roots to treat gastrointestinal problems. The Aleut used steamed leaves to soothe sore throats. The Cherokee made a calming tea from dandelion leaves and flowers.
Dandelion is known in Traditional Chinese Medicine as “Xin Xiu Ben Cao,” or “Pu Gong Ying.” It is used to address issues with the liver, stomach and lungs, to support lactation and as a mood brightener. Other herbal traditions also strongly embrace dandelion’s health benefits, and researchers continue to explore the possible anti-cancer properties of dandelion root extract.
So bring these colorful, healthful varieties in your own flower garden!