If the sight of bright yellow dandelions dotting your other- wise perfect lawn drives you nuts, blame it on the Pilgrims. It was they who reportedly brought the plant to America from its homeland in northern Europe in the early 1600s. Of course, they had good reasons for doing so. The common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is among the most nutritious and useful of herbs, with a long history of culinary and medicinal use. Its leaves, which can be boiled or eaten fresh, are high in potassium, iron, and vitamins A, C, B1, and B2. The dried and roasted roots make an accept- able coffee substitute, and the fermented flowers produce dandelion wine and beer. Dandelion tonics are a folk- medicine remedy for liver problems. Beekeepers value dandelions as a rich source of nectar and pollen.
This deep-rooted perennial forms a rosette of sharply tooth-edged leaves 612 inches long. Their fancied resemblance to a lion's teeth gives the plant its common namedandelion, a corruption of the French dent de lion (lion's tooth). Blossoms appear from late winter through fall, carried atop hollow stems 415 inches high; they're followed by the familiar puffball seed heads that children like to blow on, releasing the seeds to fly hither and yon. Dandelions are usually quickly dispatched by gardeners armed with broadleaf weed killers, but some folks grow the culinary types (selected for larger, thicker leaves) found in specialty seed catalogs. Culinary selections such as 'Pissenlit' and 'Ameliore' give best yield with full sun and fertile, moist, well-drained soil. Pick only young leaves for salads; old ones can be bitter. Culinary dandelions are just as invasive as the common ones, so be sure to remove and dispose of the seed heads before they mature.