The yellow dandelion is a (too) common sight in Springtime but when observed closely it is actually quit beautiful (unless it's growing in your yard). Click to download a large (800x600) version of this image.
The dandelion seeds along with their feathery sails are neatly arranged in a beautiful sphere awaiting for a breeze to blow them far and wide.
The common dandelion is known to most as a lawn weed, belligerently blooming on manicured lawns throughout the growing season. A single flowerhead consisting only of ray flowers sits atop an unbranched, leafless stem that may be anywhere from 2 in (5 cm) to 18 in (45 cm) high. The yellow flowerheads are nearly 2 in (5 cm) across. The stem is hollow and its juice is milky and bitter to the taste. The only leaves are basal, 2-15 in (5-38 cm) long and usually (but not always) irregularly and deeply lobed; apparently they reminded someone of the teeth of a lion. The fruits are tiny one-seeded brown achenes bearing long white silky feathery bristles. When ripe, the fluffy mass of fruits sets sail on the wind like a downy white puffball. Hold one by the stem and blow on it to separate the individual parachutes and send the seeds to your neighbor's lawn. As anyone who has tried to pull them up knows, dandelion is a perennial with a long taproot.
Botanists have named hundred of species of Taraxacum, most from Europe, and most difficult to distinguish. Red-seeded dandelion T. erythrospermum is another common cosmopolitan lawn weed; it has slightly smaller flowerheads and the achenes are red. There are several other little weedy yellow flowers that are similar to common dandelion. Dwarf dandelion (Krigia virginica) is much smaller, less than 1 ft (30 cm) tall with a small flowerhead only a half inch (1.25 cm) across. Potato dandelion (K. dandelion) is larger and has a 1" (2.5 cm) tuber just beneath the soil surface. Two-flowered cynthia (K. biflora) has orange-yellow flowerheads on a forking stem. Cat's ear (Hypochoeris radiata) has very hairy leaves and a yellow flowerhead about an inch (2.5 cm) across.
The common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is a common weed in lawns, fields and roadsides throughout the world's temperate regions. In fact, it is one of the most widespread wild plants in the world. In North America it occurs commonly almost everywhere except the southeast, where it is rare. Common dandelion originated in Europe, and got to the New World about the same time as the first European settlers.
Go ahead, TRY to kill off this one! Light: Dandelion grows best in full sun, but also grows in part shade. Moisture: Dandelions love well maintained lawns. Hardiness: USDA Zones 3-9. Propagation: The seeds spread themselves. Cultivated dandelions are usually planted in early spring and grown as annuals, not allowed to go to seed, lest they become weedy pests.
Dandelions brighten a spring wildflower meadow where they can grow without offending anyone and incurring fatal doses of toxic compounds.
Dandelion greens, gathered in the spring when young and tender, are delicious raw in salads or pot-boiled or steamed like spinach. They are very nutritious, being high in vitamins C, D and A, and in potassium, calcium and iron. Older leaves are too bitter unless boiled in a change or two of water. However, there are improved dandelion cultivars available, with larger and more tender leaves developed for spring and autumn greens. These are not as bitter as the wild plants and can be eaten when large and mature. They are often blanched to reduce bitterness by heaping mulch or soil over them, as you would asparagus. One of the most popular ways to prepare fresh dandelion leaves is to wilt them by dousing with hot vinegar and sugar, spiced up with bacon bits. The Europeans hold the roots in dark cellars for forcing blanched shoots, like Belgian endive. The roots and flowers are also edible. Pull young roots in early spring, peel and cook as you would potatoes. Dried roots are roasted and ground to make a coffee substitute. Cramaillotte is a yellow-orange jelly made from dandelion flowers with sugar and citrus. Fry the baby unopened flower buds in butter - they taste like mushrooms. Extracts of the milky juice make a powerful diuretic that reduces high blood pressure. Modern research has shown the roots to have a detoxifying effect in the liver and kidneys. A synthetic rubber is made from the milky latex of the roots.
The genus for common dandelion was formerly Leontodon, which means lion tooth. In parts of France, dandelion is called "pissenlit", and in England, "pissabed", in reference to its diuretic properties. You gotta love the colorful language of those Europeans!