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Dandelion in the Americas

Dandelion seeds came to the United States in 1620 on the Mayflower along with Puritan settlers. Some of the seeds may have been stowaways, resting in the piles of earth used for ballast, but many also came as treasured items. Puritan women transported dandelion seeds as part of their medicine chests. All parts of the dandelion plant—leaf, root, and flower—have been known for millennia as remedies for a host of ailments. The dandelion had the additional advantage of serving as a comforting reminder of England in the alien environment of the New World. In 1672, John Josselyn reported in his botanical survey of New England that dandelions were well established. Meanwhile, the Spanish brought dandelions to their settlements in California and Mexico while the French imported the plants into Canada.

By the 19th century, sharp-tasting dandelions had grown in popularity as a food and remained as a popular medicinal herb. All parts of the dandelion are edible. The stem is very bitter and somewhat sticky. The petals have a bland, slightly sweet flavor. Mostly, people have eaten the leaves and the taproot, which are both quite bitter. Spring greens and leaves after a first frost tend to be sweeter. Horticulturalists developed many varieties of the plant, including the popular French Large-Leaved Dandelion. The Shakers, in particular, were known for selling dandelion products and cultivated acres of the plants. Dandelion wine proved particularly popular as did dandelion tea and salad greens. By the late 20th century, dandelions fell out of favor. The increasing availability of other, less-bitter greens meant that the plant disappeared from grocery store shelves in favor of such greens as iceberg lettuce. Dandelions can still be found in health food stores and, of course, in gardens and lawns throughout the country.

Unlike many other non-native plants, dandelions pose no threat to the environment. As an invasive species, they are a minor one. But they do grow well in the same environment as turf grass. By interrupting the smooth expanse of green that so many home owners covet, dandelions have become one of the most disliked plants.

Caryn E. Neumann

Further Reading

Leighton, Ann. American Gardens in the Eighteenth Century: For Use or for Delight. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976.

Sanchez, Anita. The Teeth of the Lion: The Story of the Beloved and Despised Dandelion. Blacksburg, VA: McDonald and Woodward, 2006.

Selsam, Millicent E. The Amazing Dandelion. New York: Morrow, 1977.

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