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  • Writer's pictureOrion Aon

Foraging and Eating Dandelions

Updated: 2 days ago

The lowly common dandelion, one of the most recognized plants in the world, is seen as a weed and something that should be removed from your lawns, yards, and gardens. The truth is that dandelions are a wonderful edible plant with many uses. So, instead of weeding and spraying herbicide, let's try foraging dandelions!


Note: Don’t eat dandelions if they’ve already been sprayed.


A prime dandelion. Large tender leaves and a big taproot!
A prime dandelion. Large tender leaves and a big taproot!

Description


Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, is a short-lived perennial. However, it can sometimes exhibit annual or biennial growth habits. Meaning that it goes to seed and dies after one or two growing seasons. It usually grows from a single unbranching taproot, though occasionally, it will split into two or three taproots. The leaves emerge as a basal rosette and are variable in size and shape. Generally, they are long and narrow, especially tapering towards the base. The midrib can sometimes be reddish in color, and the margins are deeply or slightly lobed with sharp or rounded teeth, which gives the dandelion its name, dent de lion in French, meaning lion’s tooth. The leaves can vary in length from a couple of inches to over a foot.


A dandelion leaf with sharp and deep lobes.
Dent de Lion in French means lion's tooth and stems from dandelion's deep leaf lobes.

The flower buds are made of a group of florets surrounded by segmented cup-like bracts called calyculi. The buds grow from the center of the rosettes and eventually rise on hollow, leafless stems that can be smooth or slightly hairy. The flower stems are usually equal to or longer than the length of the leaves and can occasionally be over two feet long. The flower buds open to reveal many narrow yellow florets. The fruits, botanically called cypselae, are small, slender, and tipped with a parachute or pappus that helps the plant spread its seeds through wind dispersal.


A group of dandelion flowers.
A dandelion flower is made up of many small yellow florets.

Range & Habitats


Dandelions are a truly ubiquitous species found across much of the world save for the driest and coldest climates. It’s documented throughout North America, Europe, South America, and parts of Asia, Africa, and Australia. Where it’s native is up for debate. Most resources list it as being native to Europe and Asia, with some more recent studies claiming that North America also has a native subspecies of Taraxacum officinale. Dandelions thrive in disturbed habitats, especially the ones created by humans. It inhabits most urban areas, lawns, gardens, and even forests. It’s rare NOT to find dandelions! Here in Colorado, I find dandelions growing in areas of disturbance from the lowest elevations to the highest! Some of the largest dandelions I’ve ever seen grew near a mountain stream on the living edges of a recent burn.


Large, lush dandelions growing in a burned area.
Large, lush dandelions growing in a burned area.

Potential Look-alikes


Dandelion has no toxic look-alikes, and the information in the description above should be enough to identify dandelion properly. However, look-alike information is something that is regularly requested, so here are some possible species that could be confused with dandelion. This list is not comprehensive and may not be relevant to your region. Remember only to eat wild foods once you're 100% confident in your identification and comfortable with trying something new.


  • Other Taraxacum species. Many are edible.

  • Some mustard species before flowering such as musk mustard, Chorispora tenella, or shepherd's purse, Capsella bursa-pastoris. All mustards are edible, though some are strong or bitter-tasting.

  • Other members of the chicory tribe, Cichorieae, such as prickly lettuce, Lactuca serriola, chicory, Cichorium intybus, catsear, Hypochaeris radicata, or sow thistles, Sonchus spp. Most are edible.


Comparing the leaves of dandelion, prickly lettuce, and chicory.
Left to right: dandelion, prickly lettuce, chicory.
 

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Edibility & Foraging Dandelions


The entire dandelion plant is edible. The roots are best used as a flavoring, though they can be cooked and eaten if you find some young and tender ones. To harvest the roots, use a small trowel or narrow spade to loosen the soil around the plant, grasp the crown of the plant where the leaves meet the roots, and carefully pull while prying up with your digging tool. Large dandelions can have roots over a foot long in good soil conditions. The most common use of the roots is dandelion tea or coffee. The roots are dried, roasted, and steeped into a drink that tastes quite similar to coffee with some chocolatey, earthy notes. My favorite use for the roots is to steep the roasted grounds into an ice cream base to make dandelion coffee ice cream! It’s delicious! You can find a recipe in my friend Ellen Zachos' book, The Forager's Pantry: Cooking with Wild Edibles. This affiliate link earns me a small commission at no cost to you. Thank you!


A jar of dried dandelion roots.
Dried dandelion roots ready for roasting into coffee!!

The leaves are mild to strongly bitter, depending on size, age, and growing conditions. They make for a nice cooked green, especially when mixed with fat, acid, and a little sweetness. Try the recipe below if you’ve never cooked dandelion greens before! They are most prevalent in the spring but can also be collected in the fall when and if the plants produce a new round of greens. To harvest dandelion leaves, look for young plants that haven’t flowered yet and pinch or cut the leaves. Entire leave crowns can also be harvested when digging roots or cutting below the base of the rosette at ground level. In my experience, the largest, most tender greens come from dandelions growing in full shade. These plants must quickly grow large leaves to collect enough sunlight to make flowers. Plants putting energy into leaf production will have large, tender, milder-tasting leaves.


A handful of very long dandelion leaves.
Dandelion leaves over a foot long!

Dandelion buds can be cooked and eaten or pickled into capers! To harvest the buds, look for plants that haven’t sent up flower stalks yet and simply pick the buds from the center of the rosette. The flower stalks can be cooked and eaten, and a fun way to use these is to treat them like noodles! The yellow florets that make up dandelion flowers are often used for flavoring and infusions such as dandelion wine, jelly, and syrup. Collecting the florets for infusions can be labor-intensive because they need to be removed from the bitter green bases. A simpler and commonly used way to prepare the flowers is to dip them in a light batter and fry them into fritters! The seeds can also be eaten as a grain, but they are small and labor-intensive to collect.


A single dandelion bud emerging from the leaves and grass.
Collected at this stage, dandelion buds make great capers!

Foraging Calendar


To learn more about the best seasons to harvest this species and many others, check out my Foraging Calendar & Wild Food Database! You can try out the demo version to learn more, and join my Patreon to gain full access to the Foraging Calendar and other exclusive perks! Joining is the best way to support all the work I put into my content and website to help you learn about foraging! Thank you for checking it out!


A photo of my foraging calendar and wild food database.


Recipe: Dandelion Leaves with Lemon and Maple Syrup




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