Among the birds of our region, we tend to ignore certain species because they are so common. Among the wildflowers of our region, we tend to ignore species like the dandelion for the same reason. From time to time, we need to follow the ancient Chinese sage’s advice and “Study the familiar!”
The next time you run across a dandelion in bloom pause awhile to take a closer look. The bright yellow rays appear only during days that are not overcast. The common name “dandelion” comes from the French “dent de lion,” perhaps in reference to the jagged leaves that are said to resemble a lion’s teeth. But some maintain that the reference is to the little “teeth” along the edge of each flower ray. And still others assert that the association arose because the lion was a symbol of the sun and the flower’s sun-like appearance suggests that luminary.
About the common name “blow ball,” there’s no controversy. The downy round fruiting head forms a globe that sends forth seed-laden parachutes when blown upon by humans or the wind. On very hot days when there is no wind, you will sometimes observe these parachutes rising straight up into the sky due to heat convection.
I became interested in dandelions when I read in Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide (1977) that there are two species in our area, not just one sort as I’d always assumed. Now, when I spot a dandelion, I don’t just think, “Well, there’s another dandelion.” Knowing there are two species makes me pay attention in order to determine which one I’ve encountered.
The most common species by far is the “common dandelion” (Taraxcum officinale), which has flower heads from one to two inches wide, bracts at the base of the flower head turned downward, and brown seeds. Far less common, but still encountered on a regular basis, is “red-seeded dandelion” (Taraxcum laevigatum), which has flower heads about one inch wide, spreading bracts, and red seeds.
After some practice, you’ll learn to anticipate the red-seeded species from a distance by the fact that its leaves tend to be more deeply incised than the more common species. The teeth on each red-seeded leaf also tend to be more numerous and irregular. The clinching identification point, however, is seed color.
When I was boy growing up in Virginia, I used to collect dandelion flower heads for an uncle who made dandelion wine. He paid a penny a head. Down in his basement, he would also give me a taste of the wine from time to time when my mother or aunt weren’t around. I recall that his dandelion wine was only slightly better than castor oil. It made you want to spit.
In his amusing and informative little book titled Roots (1976), Doug Elliott noted that the secret to making a good dandelion dish is to gather fresh rosettes and use a dressing containing lots of vinegar.
“The tartness of the vinegar does wonders in cutting the sharp bitterness of the greens,” he observed. “They can also be steamed, boiled, or added to soups.”
Elliott went on to provide some useful dandelion-harvesting information, pointing out that the best method is to slip your field knife (a butcher knife would work well) under the whole plant “and slice it off at the top.” This method will allow you “to gather the whole plant, including the best part, the delicate unopened center called the heart or crown.”
Animals and plants like sparrows, starlings, opossums, kudzu, and dandelions are so successful as to become “common” because they are tenacious and opportunistic. Anyone who has tried to eradicate the dandelion from a lawn can attest to those “virtues.”
Nevertheless, after a lifetime observing the world’s plant life, Harold William Rickett — author of the monumental, multi-volume set titled Wild Flowers of the United States — came to this conclusion in regard to dandelion: “When we consider the great number of races, the worldwide distribution, and the tough hold on life of these humble but often offensive plants, we are impelled to assign them a place with the orchids, at the peak of the evolution of the plant world!”