Get your teeth into dandelions

The coming of spring

Our word of the week highlights the coming of spring (here in Australia). So we are celebrating the humble dandelion, Taraxacum officinale. I love dandelions in my lawn—the golden flowers are quite delightful. But they are considered a weed (having been introduced from Europe and Asia) by those that love their lawns pristine.

It is used to make many herbal remedies for purposes ranging from stimulating digestion to cleansing the liver. Phytochemicals in the plant are responsible for its medicinal properties which include antioxidant, hepatoprotective (liver-protecting) and anticancer effects. You can use the bitter-tasting leaves in salads and the roots can be roasted to make ersatz (fake) coffee.

How did the dandelion get its name?

The genus name, Taraxacum, is thought to derive from the Arabic tarakhshaqun from the Persian, tark hashgun, or wild endive. An alternative derivation may be that it comes from the Greek taraxis meaning confusion and akos which means remedy, ie referring to the medicinal use of the plant to cure confusion.

The species name, officina, from Medieval Latin originally meant “storeroom” but had evolved to mean a specialised herb store.

But how did the plant get to be called a dandelion? Dandelion is a Middle English word borrowed from the Old French, dentdelion. And this, of course, is the clue. The word refers to the shape of the leaves which are strongly serrated and resemble lion’s teeth. The plant’s original genus name, given by Linnaeus, was Leontodon, with the similar meaning of lion teeth.

And what is a pissenlit?

In modern French the plant is named pissenlit, which means rather crudely “urinate in bed”. This refers to the dandelion’s diuretic properties (pissabeds is an English folkname for dandelion as is piscialletto in Italian).

We are definitely better off calling it a dandelion.