Last year I found myself yelling at the TV when I saw one of Te Radar’s back to the land episodes. He was digging up dandelions, potting them up and trying to sell them at the local market. It’s actually not a bad idea, given what a useful food and medicine plant it is, but what made me yell was that a number of the plants he had weren’t dandelion at all. They were one of the dandelion look-alikes . It’s a really common mistake, almost as common as dandelion itself.
Dandelion and its look-alikes are members of the Asteraceae family. They have similar-ish leaves and similar bright yellow flowers. There’s quite a few look-alikes with confusing but intriguing names: catsear, hawkbit, hawsbeard, beaked hawksbeard, hawkweed etc (Hypochoeris, Crepis, Leontodon, and Hieracium spp).
Te Radar’s mistake was kind of funny, but kind of not too. If you are going to eat weeds, it pays to know which ones you are eating. As far as I know all the look-alikes, including Radar’s one (which was most likely a catsear) are edible but not particularly palatable. So you don’t really need to learn how to ID them because if you get one instead of a dandelion it won’t hurt you. There are some plant families where making such a mistake could cost you your life – I’ve mentioned the Umbelliferae family which contains such wild edibles as carrot, fennel, and sweet cicely as well as the deadly hemlock.
Being able to ID a dandelion is really useful though, not only for food but essential for medicine. Plus you can impress your friends when they point to a catsear and call it a dandelion.
Here’s how to tell a dandelion – Taraxacum officinale, from it’s cousins:
1. Dandelion blossoms are always one flower to one stalk. If there is more than one flower to a stalk it’s not a dandelion.
2. Dandelion’s have multiple blossom stalks that don’t branch. If there any branches on flower stalks, it’s not a dandelion.
3. Flower stalks are always hollow, and yield a white sap when broken. If the flower stalk isn’t hollow it’s not a dandelion.
4. Dandelions grow in rosettes from the ground. They never send up stalks with leaves on them. If there are stalks with leaves on them, it’s not a dandelion.
5. The leaves have no hairs on the rib on the back of the leaf (there may be a white fluff). This is a key to identifying dandelion when it’s not in flower. If there are hairs, it’s not a dandelion.
Dandelion leaves vary in shape, but generally have a classic jagged edge. Young ones may look rounder.
I admit, I just wrote this post today so I had an excuse to post photos of these glorious dandelions in flower. This one show the classic toothed leaf of the plant (dent de lion is French for lion’s tooth. I don’t know if lion’s teeth bear any resemblance or if the French are being poetic).
The hairless rib on the back of the leaf.
Non-branching stalk, one flower.
Young dandelions that don’t have any teeth yet.
Dandelion is a incredibly versatile plant. All of it can be eaten (maybe not the seeds), and all of it is medicine. Things to do with dandelion at this time of year:
~ make dandelion blossom oil (fantastic for massaging tight, aching muscles, especially neck and shoulders).
~ make dandelion blossom vinegar.
~ use blossom buds in salads, stirfries and omelettes (add near the end).
~ harvest young leaves from non-flowering plants (better get in quick as they’re starting to bloom) and eat in salads or cook well in garlic and butter and season with salt and lemon juice or vinegar. Once dandelion starts to flower the leaves get more bitter (this may not be a problem depending on your tolerance for bitter).
Most parts of the plant are high in minerals and vitamins, making dandelion an excellent addition to the diet.
Dandelion is a particular medicine of the liver and kidneys. The bitter taste varies in different parts of the plant and changes over the course of the year. Bitter stimulates digestion and production of bile. Dandelion can also make you pee more, so take care not to over do it if that’s likely to be a problem.