Or, 'How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Lion's Teeth'.


That scourge of greenkeepers and stripey-lawners comes with many aliases: ‘lion's-tooth, blowball, cankerwort, doon-head-clock, Irish daisy, milk witch, monks-head, piss-a-bed (Fr, pissenlit), priest's-crown, puff-ball faceclock, swine's snout,  witch's gowan, and yellow-gowan. These are some of the folk names for dandelions (from the French, dent de lion). Their innocent smiling faces, jagged leaves  (‘oh but what big green teeth you have…’) and delicate white seed-balls belie their wide range of important attributes. Their Latin name. Taraxacum officinale, is derived from medieval Arabic writings on pharmacology. (Officinalis in Linnaean nomenclature denotes organisms with uses in medicine, herbalism, and cookery). Dandelion’s medicinal properties are recorded in ancient Egyptian tombs. The ‘Father of Botany’, Theophrastus (c. 371–287 BCE), decided that they were too bitter to be worth eating, but nonetheless described their botany.




Photo Kevan Martin.


Historically, the Egyptians, Chinese, Romans, and Greeks used dandelions for treating everything from warts to plague, with arthritis, baldness, dandruff, depression, fevers, lethargy, rotting gums, sores, toothache, and weakness in between. In modern-day herbal medicine dandelions are used, amongst other remedies, as a mild diuretic (hence ‘piss-a-bed’).


We may smile at this folk medicine, yet in an age where our gut’s biome has been shown to be so important for our health, dandelions take on a renewed relevance. Raw dandelion leaves (deliciously peppery mixed in salads, despite Theophrastus’ negative review) are a prime source of the vitamins A, C and K and they provide moderate amounts of calcium, potassium, iron, and manganese. They contain lutein, one of a group of carotinoids that are used in food supplements marketed with claims that they improve eye and skin health. Carotenoids are added to animal feeds to make egg yolks more yellow and to get the flesh of farmed salmon and trout to look more like the wild fish. Dandelion leaves contain terpenoids, triterpenes and sesquiterpenes, which are also micronutrients (The provitamin beta carotene is a terpene derivative).


flower_leaves_IMG_5324Lion's Teeth Leaves and Polyphenol Flowers.
Photo Kevan Martin.


Dandelion flowers contain polyphenols, which are now flavor of the moment for nutritionists, because they contain antioxidants, which occur naturally in plants. There is evidence from epidemiological studies that long-term consumption of plant polyphenols offers some protection against development of cancers, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, osteoporosis and neurodegenerative diseases. And if that were not enough, the roots can be dried and used as a caffeine-free coffee alternative, albeit it is eye-wateringly expensive. A cheaper, Victorian-era, instant coffee, still marketed as ‘Camp Coffee’ (from the same firm that brought you the alcoholic beverage called, ‘Cuddle-me-Dearie’), is made from a brew of ground chicory roots mixed with sugar and a smidgin of real coffee. Like the roots of dandelion, chicory roots contain the prebiotic, inulin, which has long been used as the gold-standard for analyzing filtration in the kidney, but when kiln dried and pulverized, the inulins acquire the taste of liquorice-scented instant coffee.


Now that you surely want to bulk-up on dandelions, you could start with a green salad containing the lion-toothed leaves and decorated with dandelion flowers, followed by a dandelion quiche, accompanied by dandelion-and-burdock cordial* or dandelion wine, and finish it off with a scoop of dandelion ice-cream topped with dandelion jelly. To help digestion, pour yourself a post-prandial cup of dandelion tea, which, it is claimed, helps the liver flush toxins from the body.


Taraxacum officinale, Long Mead. April 2024
Photo Catriona Bass.


Botanically, dandelions are members of the largest family of flowering plants, the Asteraceae, which encompasses about 32 000 species - 9% of all flowering plants in the world. Asteraceae can be found in almost all habitats and our common dandelion boasts lettuces, artichokes, and arnica amongst its relations. In the UK, 234 microspecies have been identified, only a fraction of which are endemic. They started to be cultivated in the UK and the USA in the 19th century by herbalists and gardeners. The dandelion is a perennial plant with long roots, so it is resistant to grazers, and poses a perennial challenge to the lawn fetishists, who have deployed a formidable chemical armory in a Sisyphean attempt to eradicate it. (Herbicides used on lawns to kill dandelions and other unwanted ‘weeds’ and mosses, takes a tremendous toll on wildlife. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, ten times more pesticides are used per acre on lawns than farmers use on crops in the USA). Dandelions are good for grass as they aerate the soil and their long tap roots draw up minerals from the subsoil to the surface.


Relative to the plant families of grasses, beans, and roses, Asteraceae do not have as great economic value, because relatively few are used for food or medicines. Their main economic value is found in art and design (think Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’, William Morris’ wallpaper), advertising (think fragrances: ‘Daisy - ever so fresh’), and garden centres, but their value for biodiversity is inestimable. Thousands of invertebrates and hundreds of vertebrates depend on them. Amongst the ‘ecosystem services’ that dandelions provide is early spring food for crop pollinators like bees and hoverflies. Over 100 species of pollinators have been recorded visiting dandelions and it has been estimated that just 8 flowers will provide an elegant sufficiency of nectar for a bumblebee. The dandelion is the food plant for the caterpillars of several species of butterflies and moths and its seeds are lunch for goldfinches, sparrows, bull finches and linnets. Other aeronauts will appreciate that the pappas of the dandelion, which carries the seed into the air, is a sophisticated piece of physics. They know that the pappas creates a separated vortex ring in its wake, which stabilizes it, creates drag, which allows it to float large distances (to the eternal chagrin of the greenkeeper).



Pappas and Separated Vortex Ring.
Figure: C Cummins, M Seale, A Macente, D Certini, E Mastropaolo, IM Viola & N Nakayama of Herriot-Watt University.


A child’s first drawing of a flower typically looks like a daisy – a classic specimen of Asteraceae. The name ‘daisy’ is derived from an Old English for ‘day’s eye’ (daeges eage) because they open in early morning, so it seems that Asteraceae can even tell the time. ‘Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon’ is a familiar sight in our meadows, but you have to get up early to see it open. Linnaeus, noting that different Asteraceae closed at different times, suggested they would work as a floral timepiece, with dandelions closing first at 9 a.m. and a hawkweed closing at 5 p.m. His idea never caught on. But the dandelion's 'clock' is less complicated – it just needs a child to blow on it and make a wish...


puffs_IMG_5323Dandelion don't tell no lies/Dandelion will make you wise/Tell me if she laughs or cries/Blow away dandelion.

('Dandelion', Richards and Jagger. Photo Kevan Martin).


So let’s enjoy our transient yellow carpets of dandelions, which flower briefly in our village verges and playing fields, quickening the heart in early spring and providing delight for the eye, joy for children, and food for our bee, butterfly, and bird communities, before they are prematurely beheaded by the municipal mowers.

But, as the dandelion said to the burdock, 'I'll be back…'


Kevan Martin

(with thanks to Phil Tait for wondering why).


*Dandelion and Burdock Cordial

600ml (2.5 cups) cold water

1 tsp ground dried burdock root

1 tsp ground dried dandelion root

small piece ginger crushed

1 whole star anise, crushed

half tsp citric acid

300 g granulated sugar

soda water 

Place all ingredients except sugar and soda water into a large saucepan and bring to the boil, simmer for 20 mins. Filter the mixture through a sieve/muslin cloth. While still hot stir in sugar to taste. Leave to cool. To serve, add 200 ml soda water to every 50 ml of syrup and stir. Pour over ice in glass tumblers.




Field_PuffballField of Wishes.
Photo Kevan Martin