Plants

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

It’s a shame that Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) gets labelled as a weed. Every part of this herbaceous plant is useful, from the medicinal root to its edible leaves. It grows everywhere, from gardens to overgrown and abandoned lots and construction sites, and everybody will probably recognise those wispy, silver-tufted fruits of the dandelion that form after its yellow flower has retired, but bear in mind not to confuse it with False Dandelion (Hypochaeris radicata), which also sends out similar-looking tufts to the airwaves.

False Dandelion is not harmful and looks very similar to true dandelion throughout all its forms – plus it is medicinal too. This resilient plant been used as a diuretic for kidney problems as well as to treat urinary and liver infections. There are four easy ways to identify Dandelion to separate it from False Dandelion (Cat’s ear).

  • Dandelion will always have smooth, hairless leaves. No bristles at all. Cat’s ear leaves are packed with small hairy spines.
  • Only one flower or bud per stem is present with dandelion. Cat’s ear can have multiple stems and flower offshoots originating from a single stem.
  • The leaves of dandelion are very jagged, and another common name for this plant is lion’s tooth due to the leaves being shaped like sharp feline teeth.
  • Dandelion leaves usually display a reddish colour at the base where they centrally-emerge from the ground.

The leaves of dandelion have a bitter taste, something I actually love. Sweet and salty flavours are far too prevalent in the modern era and less emphasis is put on bitterness, which is a pity because that bitter flavour helps maintain the flow of bile, is good for the gallbladder, stimulates the liver and aids digestion. Juiced, dandelion leaves are useful for diabetics as it stimulates the pancreas to create insulin, in turn maintaining a healthy a healthy blood sugar level. This wonderful plant is also diuretic in nature, meaning that it increases urination, and we can see this by learning the traditional French name for dandelion, which is pissenlit, directly translating to “pee your bed”. This action additionally can be seen as detoxifying, a useful process which removes deposits of toxic substances in your body. It is therefore good for weight loss too – and very low in calories!

If you break open the stem of a dandelion you’ll notice a white sap bleed out from it. This sap is also medicinal and has been used to treat eczema, acne, itchiness and skin disorders. This is just literally the tip, because below the ground we have dandelion’s remarkable root. Extracts of the root have been shown to kill colon cancer cells, as well as to have shown a positive effect against prostate, breast, pancreatic forms of cancers as well as leukaemia. The same medicine has been shown to reduce cholesterol and maintain a healthy heart. Anti-inflammatory and anti-depression effects have also been recorded.

To get a dose of the root’s goodness at home, make a decoction. This is essentially an extended boil. Harvest about 4-5 roots (you’ll probably need to invest in a small gardening tool to uproot them with ease) and then break them down using a mortar and pestle. Bring a half-full, medium-sized pot of water to the boil on the stove and then add your macerated roots. Allow to simmer for 20 minutes, strain and add a little honey for taste. Start off with a cup in the morning every day for a week. Take a break for another week, and then resume the course. It’s important to start small and then increase your dose as time passes. Be wary of overusing this plant, or any other for that matter, because this is powerful medicine.

Next time you encounter a dandelion, whether it is in your garden or in your street, take a moment to remember how useful this “weed” really is.

This website takes a sustainable approach to foraging and doesn’t focus on protected or indigenous plants or fungi. Like the other invasive plants on this website, this is a species that should not be cultivated or propagated in South Africa. It’s often illegal to buy, sell or trade in exotic plants.

Learn how to forage with this South African foraging guide, or find out which South African books cover foraging

Other wild edible plants to forage in South Africa