By Cecilia Dailey
Dandelion is flowering right now and is a widely known plant to many laypeople. But, do you really know how to differentiate true dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) from other yellow-flowering asters?
It’s common in lawns, pastures, old fields, and waste places. Dandelion is often battled as an agricultural weed and featured as an enemy in chemical lawn care regimes. T. officinale is the most common species, but all species in the genus Taraxacum have nutritional and medicinal benefits that have been documented since antiquity. Although human trials are lacking, there is a “large volume of information that supports the traditional medicinal use of this plant” (Martinez 2015). T. officinale is found worldwide. It is popularly foraged in Italy (Martinez 2015). It was widely used by Native American tribes across the United States (Moerman 2022). Dandelion flowers, collected and fermented as wine, as well as cooked as a potherb, are documented in African American food history in the South (Yentsch 2008). Recently, researchers found the greens of dandelion (T. officinale), and to a lesser degree, chicory (Cichorium intybus, also called red-ribbed dandelion), active against COVID-19 in vitro (Tran et al. 2021).
There are common look-alikes, all in the Asteraceae family, which may cause confusion when trying to identify the true dandelion (T. officinale). The species listed here are both exotic and native in origin and can occupy the same habitat–ruderal or periodically mowed lands along roads, trails, and cultivated areas.
On the South Carolina coast, I often find Asiatic hawksbeard (Youngia japonica), Carolina false-dandelion (Pyrrhopappus carolinianus), dwarf-dandelion (Krigia spp.), and sow thistle (Sonchus spp.), all common yellow asters flowering in the spring. When not in bloom, wild lettuce (Lactuca spp.), with white or purple flowers, might be mistaken for dandelion because they also form a basal rosette and have lobed leaves.*
When Taraxacum is in bloom, the flowering stem will not have any branches as seen in Y. japonica and P. carolinianus. Botanists use the word ‘scapose’ to describe a dandelion, because it has a naked stem called a scape. Some Krigia species are scapose (Radford et al. 1968).
Before flowering, get familiar with the serration of the dandelion leaves. Lobes and teeth are angled back toward the stem. There are no prickles, and the leaf is flat and thin.
Proper identification of species is paramount in wild harvesting. In the past, medicinal plants were grown in backyard food gardens, and colloquial knowledge of plants was common, passed down by word of mouth and experience in the home. Today, many people who become interested in herbs don’t have access to pristine, rural land where medicinal plants may be found. You may buy them online or resort to wild harvesting in (hopefully) clean and legal locations. Leafy greens can bioaccumulate heavy metals, so care should be taken with site selection (Giacomino 2016).
Botanical understanding of a species is paramount to wild harvesting. Take the time to look closer, and collect plants for inspection at home. Don’t eat them yet, but grow them in your home garden, and look closely at anything similar in your region. Early spring is a great time to work on this group. There will always be botanical surprises the more closely you look at the details, no matter your level of expertise.
Botanical texts with dichotomous keys used for identification of plants in the Southeast include Radford et al. (1968) and Weakley (2020).
*See “Dandelions and dandelion-like species” on Namethatplant.net for additional comparison photos of plants not pictured here. As always in botany, there is more to study. Hypochaeris radicata and Hieracium venosum are additional yellow-flowering asters you might encounter in the Southeast not mentioned in this article. http://www.namethatplant.net/mobile/gallery_compare.shtml?compare=Dandelions%20and%20Dandelion-like%20species
Medical Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for education purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.
Photo Credits: 1) Illustration of Taraxacum officinale, dandelion (Radford et al., 1968); 2) Taraxacum officinale, Charleston County, South Carolina; 3) Pyrrhopappus carolinianus, Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina; 4) Sonchus oleraceus, Charleston County, South Carolina; 5) Krigia virginica. All other photos courtesy of Richard Porter used by permission.
Giacomino, Malandrino, Colombo, Miaglia, Maimone, Blancato, Conca, and Abollino. Metal Content in Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) Leaves: Influence of Vehicular Traffic and Safety upon Consumption as Food. Journal of Chemistry. Volume 2016. https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/9842987
Martinez, Poirrier, Chamy, Prüfer, Schulze-Gronover, Jorquera, and Ruiz. Taraxacum officinale and related species—An ethnopharmacological review and its potential as a commercial medicinal plant. Journal of Ethnopharmacology. Volume 169, 1 July 2015, Pages 244-262.
Moerman, Dan. Native American Ethnobotany Database, search for “taraxacum officinale,” last accessed 27 March 2022. http://naeb.brit.org/uses/search/?string=taraxacum+officinale
Radford, Ahles, and Bell. Manual of the vascular flora of the Carolinas. The University of North Carolina Press, 1968.
Tran, Le, Gigl, Dawid, and Lamy. Common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) efficiently blocks the interaction between ACE2 cell surface receptor and SARS-CoV-2 spike protein D614, mutants D614G, N501Y, K417N and E484K in vitro. bioRxiv preprint doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.03.19.435959; this version posted 19 March 2021. https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.03.19.435959v1.full.pdf
Weakley, Alan S. Flora of the Southeast. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Herbarium (NCU), North Carolina Botanical Garden, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2020. https://ncbg.unc.edu/research/unc-herbarium/flora-request/ (download request)
Yentsch, Anne. Excavating the South’s African American food history.” African Diaspora Archaeology Newsletter, Volume 12, Issue 2 June 2009. https://scholarworks.umass.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1802&context=adan
Cecilia Dailey is a biologist, conservationist, author, and artist. Celie is a DHEC-certified wild mushroom forager in South Carolina and Georgia and has a Certificate of Native Plant Studies from Clemson University.