Overlooked dandelions

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//img-InlyeWdRF5.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of www.fhsu.edu’, ‘Dandelions could be the most under-appreciated flower in the world.’);

In all probability, the dandelion is the best-known flower on earth and one of the most unappreciated. It is found in all inhabited areas of the world. Where humans live, the dandelion will raise its golden head through most months of the year, but because it is so widespread and prolific, its aesthetic beauty and other usefulness is often overlooked.

This plant, which many consider to be an obnoxious weed and which is so plentiful in the Rock River Valley at this time, gets it name from its narrow leaves with the jagged edges. The French named it Dent de lion, or “lion’s tooth” many centuries ago, and we have taken over that name in slightly changed form.

Dandelions are impudent intruders on our well-kept lawns, and we go after them with enthusiasm and indignation. Millions of dollars are spent annually for herbicides that will kill the dandelion and not harm the grass. Simply digging up the offending plant is usually not successful as every bit of the long, carrot-like root that may reach 10 inches in length must be removed, or the plant will quickly regenerate itself. Dandelions have no stem, and the leaves arise directly from the top of the root.

The flowering head of the plant is called a composite as it consists of many separate, closely compacted flowers. Each of these florets produces a single seed. As the seed matures, the brilliant yellow petals disintegrate, and the seeds are prepared for dispersal far and wide.

Each of the florets making up the fruiting head is what is termed complete, in that both pollen and ovules are produced in the same floret. It would seem that pollination would be accomplished in the usual manner, but the pollen is sterile, and there is no true fertilization. This does not matter, as the seeds contain small buds of the parent plant and do not require fertilization; thus the dandelion is asexual.

As the flowers fade away and while the seeds are ripening, the hollow stalk of the flowering head grows longer, thus lifting it up several inches above the ground in preparation for the seeds to be dispersed by the wind. Many other plants use the wind to ensure their seeds are spread far and wide, and the ability to do this is of great advantage to the plant. If all the seeds produced by a given plant were allowed to fall to the ground and germinate there, the resulting overcrowding can well be imagined.

Dandelion seeds have flying hairs attached to them, and they are arranged to form the familiar white balls of fluff of which we are all familiar. These flying hairs are sometimes called parachutes, and they serve to keep the seeds airborne so they may be scattered up to several miles from their place of origin.

Children love dandelions as they readily attract their youthful eyes, and they are allowed to pick them unhindered. I remember as a child we would pick a dandelion when the flowering head had become a feathery sphere, and what fun it was to blow on it in an attempt to determine “what o’clock” it might be.

Dandelion salad is relished in all parts of the world. The tender leaves of the plant should be washed thoroughly to remove any herbicide residue that may be present. Various studies have shown that dandelion leaves are very nutritious and contain significant amounts of vitamins A, D, B-complex and C. In addition, they have been found to contain valuable amounts of the following physiologically important elements: silicon, magnesium, manganese, potassium, zinc, copper, and phosphorus.

Dandelions have been used as herbal medicines for centuries. Concoctions made from the root have been used to treat disease of the liver, “bad” blood, gout, cramps, cancer, and a variety of other ailments. One study reported dried dandelion leaves brewed into a tea were just as effective a diuretic as the commonly prescribed Lasix.

And there is the popular dandelion wine. An old recipe requires no special equipment or ingredients to make it, just dandelions, sugar, yeast, oranges and lemons, and pots for boiling. The basic ingredients are 2 quarts of dandelion blossoms, 4 quarts of water, 1 cup of orange juice, a teaspoon of lemon juice, 6 cups of sugar, 1/4 cup of warm water, and one pack of dried yeast (other spices such as clove and ginger may be added if desired).

The procedure is as follows: dissolve yeast in the warm water and set aside. Place dandelions in the 4 qts of water with the juices and sugar and boil for one hour. Cool. While still warm (but not hot), add the yeast.

Let stand overnight and pour into bottles after filtering through coffee filters. Allow the uncorked bottles to set in a dark place for about three weeks to permit fermentation. Then cork and store in a cool place. This recipe makes about 4 quarts of wine. A Votre Sante!

There is much to be said for the humble, abundant, and beautiful dandelion.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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