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The Virtues of the Dandelion
Dandelions may well be the world's most famous weed. Each spring they burst into a carpet of sunny yellow blossoms. The flowers open wide to greet the morning and then close toward evening. To listen to the media, with all their ads for weed killers, however, you'd think that dandelions were a serious threat to humanity — when it's the herbicides that really do the harm! Every year, Americans spend millions of dollars on herbicides so that we may enjoy uniform lawns of nonnative grasses, and then use 30 percent of the nation's water supply to keep those lawns green. Meanwhile, those same herbicides poison our air, water, and ultimately our bodies.
Though dandelion today is considered by most people to be a useless weed, in truth it is one of the most beneficial and healthful of herbs. Every part of the dandelion has a use, ranging from food, to medicine, to dye. These beneficial properties did not always go unnoticed in North America: Up until the 1800s, people would actually pull the grass out of their yards to make room for dandelions and other useful "weeds" such as chickweed, malva, and chamomile.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered." The time has come again to learn the virtues of the dandelion.
What Is a Dandelion?
It has been said that the average American recognizes more than a thousand logos for commercial products, yet recognizes fewer than five plants that grow in his or her area. For most people, the dandelion is likely to be one of these familiar plants.
The botanical name for dandelion is Taraxacum officinale. The genus name, Taraxacum, is from the Arabic and means "bitter herb." It may have evolved from the Greek taraxos, a term used by Arab physicians of the early Middle Ages to mean "disorder," and akos, meaning "remedy." Or it could be derived from the Greek taraxia, meaning "eye disorder," and akeomai, "to cure," as dandelion was traditionally used as a remedy for the eyes.
The species name, officinale, tells us that the plant is or was an "official medicine," or "the plant of the apothecaries in Rome."
What's in a Name?
The word dandelion is a Saxon corruption of the Norman term dent de lion, meaning "tooth of the lion," perhaps a reference to the serrated leaves. Each of the florets has five toothed edges, another correlation to lion's teeth. Some say the comparison to lions has to do with the flower's bright yellow color; others say simply that the plant is as strong as the tooth of a lion. The name may also symbolize the traditional astrological connection between the sun and lions — Leo (the Lion) is governed by the Sun.
Dandelion has also been known by a variety of nicknames, including amarga, bitterwort, blowball, cankerwort, chicoria, clockflower, consuelda, devil's milkpail, doonhead clock, fairy clock, fortune-teller, heart-fever grass, Irish daisy, milk gowan, milk witch, monk's head, peasant's cloak, puffball, priest's crown, sun in the grass, swine's snout, tell-time, tramp with the golden head, piss-en-lit (meaning "pee in the bed"), piddly bed, wet-a-bed, yellow gowan, and wild endive.
Each of the names has historical or cultural significance. For example, gowan is a Scottish word for "daisylike flower." Names such as blowball and tell-time are reminders of a traditional game: Children blow the seed heads and watch them disperse and fly away; the number left is supposed to signify the hour. When the mature flower head closes, it resembles a pig's snout; hence the nickname swine's snout. The plant is sometimes known as monk's head — when all the seeds have gone, the top looks like a priest's tonsure, or shaved crown.
Dandelion is believed to be native to Greece and the Mediterranean regions of Asia Minor and Europe. It is a perennial member of the Asteraceae family, which is one of the largest groups of flowering plants and includes daisies, sunflowers, and calendula as well as lettuce and endive.
Dandelion is considered by botanists to be a dicot — that is, a plant that bears two leaves from its germinating seed. The hollow, unbranched stems grow 2 to 18 inches high atop a rosette of shiny, hairless, coarsely toothed green leaves that are broader toward the top than at the base. The teeth of the leaves are usually directed downward. The leaves grow in a basal rosette — quite an ingenious botanical design, as the natural grooving of the leaves helps to steer water to the roots of the plant.
The plant first blooms, one yellow flower head per plant, in early spring. The blossom, measuring / to 2 inches in diameter, is actually a compilation of about 150 florets, each a complete tiny tube-shaped ray flower in its own right with anthers and stigmas. Each floret has five tiny teeth on its edge.
The flowering season in the northern hemisphere, where dandelions are most common, is from April to June. The blossoms close early in the evening and during cloudy weather, perhaps to protect the nectar and pollen as well as to conserve heat during cold spring nights. Dandelions are very sensitive to temperature; they bloom more when the weather is cool and the blooms clear and disappear as hot summer arrives. Dandelion has one of the longest flowering seasons of any plant, and when a warm spell occurs in an off season, it is not unusual to see the pretty yellow flowers.
Underneath the flower is a green calyx with downward-curved outer bracts. When the blossoming cycle is complete, the flower head folds up for several days, with the calyx drawn into a cylindrical shape around the ripening ovaries, before reopening to reveal its parachute-topped seeds. Dandelion is considered apomict: It produces seeds without pollination or fertilization. This bisexual tendency enables many various forms of the plant to evolve, each differ from the other in minute ways. The seeds, borne on a circular ball, are known as acheniums. They bear a feathery pappus (or tuft) and are carried on the wind — often as many as 5 miles from their origin.
The ovule contains special cells that produce embryos that are identical to the parent plant. The long taproot issues from a short rhizome. All of the underground portions are dark brown on the outside, white on the inside. The root can grow up to a foot long and is milky white inside with a brown epidermis. The taproot allows the plant access to water deep in the earth so that it can survive dry spells. The entire plant contains a milky white juice.
Lore and Legend: How the Dandelion Came to Be
Because dandelion can be found in many parts of the world, there are many different legends and folkloric stories explaining how the dandelion came to be. Dandelions also predominate in the traditional mythology of many cultures. For example, ancient Greek mythology tells the tale of Hecate, goddess of the earth and underworld, honoring Theseus with a salad of dandelion greens after he slew the infamous Minotaur.
Fairies and Wood Sprites
Following in the footsteps of many other creation stories, one popular legend ascribes dandelion's birth to the work of fairies. Many thousands of years ago, when the world was populated with fairies and elves, the first humans arrived. They soon caused these tiny creatures many problems, as the humans were usually unable to see the wee folk and would step on them. So the fairies took to dressing in bright yellow garments and eventually were changed into dandelions, which have the ability to spring back up if trodden upon. Thus, it is believed that dandelions recover so quickly from being stepped on because each contains the spirit of a fairy.
Another folkloric story tells of a miserly old man who discovered a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. He decided to hide it in the ground rather than share his good fortune. In order to think about where he would bury it, he took the gold home with him in a sack and then went to bed. While he was sleeping, a hungry mouse, in search of food, gnawed a hole in the sack.
Early the next morning, the man grabbed the sack and went to bury it. As he reached a dark part of the forest, he noticed how light the sack had become. When he looked inside, there were but a few coins left. "My gold has fallen out!" he cried. "I shall retrace my steps and pick it all back up!" Believing the nuggets would be easy to spot on the ground, he walked back and bent down to collect the shiny gold pieces. However, they had become rooted to the ground. When he looked closer, he noticed that each coin was now a golden flower. Wood sprites had transformed the coins into golden flowers for all to enjoy.
Native American Stories
A Native American legend holds that once a beautiful, golden-haired maiden was admired by the South Wind. The South Wind was too lazy to court her, so he lay in the shade and watched her as she smelled the flowers. He waited so long that one day, when awakening from a nap, he noticed that she was now a gray-haired woman. The South Wind blamed his brother the North Wind, believing it was he who had blown a frost upon her to whiten her golden hair. To this day, the South Wind continues to sigh for the love he may have once enjoyed.
Another Native American legend involves a golden-haired girl who fell in love with the Sun. She rejected all suitors and simply watched the Sun make his journey across the sky, although he ignored her. She grieved until she got old, frail, and gray and was blown away by the wind. The Sun, finally noticing, felt sorry that he had not paid attention to her and could not bring her back. The Great Spirit took pity and sent small golden flowers to bloom on the prairies, and to this day the wind carries off the gray-haired seeds.
Magic and Mystery
In the sixteenth century, Pier Andrea Mattioli, an Italian physician and author of Commentarii in Sex Libros Pedacii Dioscorides, wrote, "Magicians say that if a person rubs himself all over with dandelion, he will be everywhere welcome and obtain what he wishes." Rubbing your skin with dandelion juice was believed to ensure that you would receive hospitality in any home.
According to astrology, dandelion corresponds to the air element. It is governed by Jupiter and considered a masculine plant. Herbs ruled by Jupiter are cheerful, benevolent, soothing, and jovial. Dandelion is also under the dominion of the Sun, which governs plants of a bright golden color. In Ayurvedic medicine, however, dandelion is ruled by Saturn, which governs cool, bitter, and detoxifying herbs.
The Doctrine of Signatures
The Doctrine of Signatures is a folkloric belief that plants give us hints as to what they are good for by the way they look. It has evolved from bits of astrology, alchemy, fact, and fantasy. The doctrine is founded on the belief that by observing a plant — the color of its flower, the shape of its leaf or root — you can determine its place in nature's plan. For example, the form of kidney beans tells us that they're good for the kidneys; blood-red beets fortify the blood; a head of cauliflower benefits the brain.
What Dandelion Tells Us
Dandelion is a survivor. It reaches deep into the earth, making it impervious to burrowing animals and fire. The bright yellow color of the flower corresponds to the liver and thus explains its use in treating gallstones and jaundice. Because dandelion has a juicy stem and root, it was considered beneficial for increasing urine production. The roots and leaves are associated with the physical body, the yellow flowers with mental health, and the puffball seed head with emotional well-being. As the seeds fly off and return to the earth, they represent the muscular structure being calmed.
The liver is an organ that has suffered numerous assaults from chemicals in our environment. So, too, the dandelion, yet it continues to adapt and also helps the human organism to adapt. Dandelion is indeed hardy. It grows through cracks in the sidewalks; thrives despite a multitude of herbicides; and can even withstand 20,000 volts of electricity. Where lawns are mowed, the dandelion keeps a very short stem, but in tall grass their stems stretch to greater height in order to catch the rays of the sun. If the leaves or flowers are cut, more grow back within a few days. It seems fitting that a plant that has adjusted so well to the environment can help humans adapt to a polluted planet — while we do our best to correct the situation. The simple abundance of the dandelion may perhaps be a sign that we should be using lots of this gift of nature!
Other Folklore Beliefs
There are so many wonderful facts and much mythology about this plant! Following are just a few bits of dandelion lore that have been passed down to me.
* Drinking a tea of dandelion leaves is said to promote psychic ability, especially if you drink the tea while visualizing an increase in that talent.
* Maidens would blow on the seed head; the number of seeds remaining would determine how many children they would have once they married.
* When a maiden blew on a dandelion seed head, if at least one seed remained, it was a sign that her sweetheart was thinking of her.
* When the downy seeds blow off the dandelion and there is no wind, it will rain.
* Lovers should blow dandelion seeds in the direction of their beloved to send messages of affection.
* Blow on a dandelion seed head and however many seeds are left are how many more years you will live.
* Make a wish and then blow on the seed head. If every single seed flies away, your wish will come true.
* Growing dandelions at the northwest corner of your property is said to bring favorable winds.
* In the Victorian language of flowers, dandelion signifies love. It is also a symbol of wishes, welcome, faithfulness, and divination. In some cultures it is considered good luck to dream of dandelions; in others, though, a dandelion dream portends ill fortune, indicating that the dreamer's lover was untrue.
Collecting, Growing, and Harvesting
Dandelions grow worldwide except in deserts and in the tropics. This herb seems to follow the steps of civilization and cultivation. It is especially prolific throughout the northern temperate zones and can flourish from sea level up to altitudes of 10,500 feet. There are even reports of a variety growing in the Himalayas at 18,000 feet!
Benefits for the Soil and the Environment
Dandelion grows where the soil is healthy — it is considered an indicator of the presence of potassium, magnesium, calcium, and sodium. Dandelions prefer loose, rich, well-drained, nitrogen-rich soil with neutral acidity, but they can tolerate a wide range of conditions. Because of dandelion's deep taproot, it doesn't compete with short-rooted grasses. The long roots help to aerate the soil, providing drainage channels for water, and help to heal barren or overworked soil by soaking up nutrients that have been washed downward and bringing them up toward the surface where other, shorter-rooted plants can use them — sort of like an herbal earthworm: facilitating, not competing. Dandelions also help to convert nitrogen to nitrates in the soil. They are a natural humus magnet, as earthworms enjoy the soil near them (hence the Chinese nickname, "earth nail").
Dandelion growing in fruit orchards gives off ethylene gas at sunset, which helps fruit to ripen early and evenly. Not only do the fruits grow larger, but so, too, do the dandelions. They seem to have a cooperative, symbiotic relationship.
When dandelions die, the channels formed by their roots open up the earth for other plants to grow. If uprooted dandelions are added to compost, they work as an activator, speeding up the decomposition of composted material; they also help provide copper as a nutrient.
A Friend to Creatures
Dandelion blooms in the spring, at a time when other sources of pollen are scarce. The stigma of the flower grows through the tube formed from the anthers. The stigma pushes the pollen forward, which coats visiting insects who then carry it to other flowers and thus ensure cross-pollinization. It has been reported that at least 85 different insects are nourished by dandelions, including butterflies, wasps, flies, and beetles. Bees love it — dandelion is an important plant for honey production.
Canada geese, grouse, pheasants, and many other birds eat the seeds. Purple finches are particularly attracted to dandelions. Leaves are consumed by black-and grizzly bears, chipmunks, elk, and porcupines. Goats, pigs, and rabbits will eat the whole plant. Feed dandelions to domestic rabbits, guinea pigs, and gerbils. When cows consume dandelion, they produce even more milk, though they may not relish the bitter flavor. Dandelions are a favorite food for pigs and chickens. Horses will eat dandelion greens and roots when they are cut and mixed with bran. The leaves are even fed to silkworms when their usual food, mulberry leaves, is scarce.
Dandelions are abundant in meadows, in waste places, along roadsides, and, of course, in lawns. The plant frequently grows where the soil has been disturbed. You'll often find dandelion as a companion to plantain, clover, and alfalfa.
Excerpted from "Dandelion Medicine"
Copyright © 1999 Brigitte Mars.
Excerpted by permission of Storey Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents1 The Virtues of the Dandelion
What Is a Dandelion?
Lore and Legend: How the Dandelion Came to Be
Magic and Mystery
The Doctrine of Signatures
2 Collecting, Growing, and Harvesting
Benefits for the Soil and the Environment
Cultivating Your Own
Getting Rid of Dandelions
3 Traditional Uses of Dandelion Medicine
Early Western Traditions
North American Uses
Dandelion in Chinese Medicine
4 Dandelion's Medicinal Properties
A Cure-All for What Ails You
Clinical Trials and Scientific Findings
Contraindications and Cautions
Benefits for Specific Ailments and Conditions
5 Making and Using Dandelion Medicines
Making Herbal Tinctures
Medicinal Tea Recipes
Dandelion as a Homeopathic Remedy
Delicious Dandelion Beverages
Topical Medicinal Uses
6 Cooking with Dandelions
Nutritional and Healthful Constituents
Converting to Metric Measurements