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DANDELION : Taraxacum

Also see HAWKWEED with different leaves and petal ends : index.asp?pageid=732540

We all think that we know exactly what a dandelion looks like, but there are approximately 250 varieties in the UK. The Botanical Society of Britain and ireland sets out some guidance and refers to sources of more specific identification. Besides the number of species there are changes during their growth to confuse us.

However it can be exciting to realise that we have found a second or third species / subspecies locally. 

To most of us, a dandelion is a low plant with yellow flowers which turn into distinctive puffballs. That is probably enough indentifcation for most of us, but there is a mind boggling array of subspecies to identify if you are up to the challenge.

A useful analogy is hinted at through the name. The serated leafs are like the teeth of a lion. This is more than just a bit of fun information as there are several other plant species about that look similar. The leafs are a good way to differentiate them. 

Within West Dunbartonshire we all noticed the proliferation of dandelions in the spring. By mid-summer these had all puffed their heads and seemed to disappear. Then as the summer progresses we had what appeared to be a new dandelion proliferation. What apparently happened was that one or more other species was taking its turn. And to add to them, there were also similar plants with similar seed heads reaching the stage of seed dispersal in similar air-borne ways. We can be fairly certain of the Common Dandelion, but the others will need expert verification.

If you look at the Field Handbook of British and Irish Dandelions, by A. J. Richards, which covers 239 dandelions in great detail, you will be overwhelmed. This West Dunbartonshire website is written and compiled from an amateur point of view. Dandelions have proved an exciting and aluring plant - not at all the menace that herbicidal companies attempt to portray. And the more you notice them, the more fascinating they become.

The bright yellow of dandelions is synonymous with spring. They pring forth in a great variety of environments - including our gardens and even our paving. Many see them as intrusive and aim to get rid of them. But the point at which the puff of the seed head, also known as a puffball, containing a great many small florets is truly amazing and great fun for kids to blow. But to others it may mean the uncontrolled dispersal of seeds. 

The seed balls or fluffballs remain the most distinctive feature of dandelions, at leat to us amateurs (although there are many plants that share this feature). Wiki tells us : After flowering is finished, the dandelion flower head dries out for a day or two. The dried petals and stamens drop off, the bracts reflex (curve backwards), and the parachute ball opens into a full sphere. When development is complete, the mature seeds are attached to white, fluffy "parachutes" which easily detach from the seedhead and glide by wind, dispersing.

The seeds are able to cover large distances when dispersed due to the unique morphology of the pappus which works to create a unique type of vortex ring that stays attached to the seed rather than being sent downstream. In addition to the creation of this vortex ring, the pappus can adjust its morphology depending on the moisture in the air. This allows the plume of seeds to close up and reduce the chance to separate from the stem, waiting for optimal conditions that will maximize dispersal and germination. 

Our website here hardly does justice to the extensive range of dandelions, even those right here in West Dunbartonshire. But it does endevour to encourage interest in them. Our own enthusiasm has been triggered by the rich yellows aof spring followed by the intricate forms of the puffballs. Added to this has been the realisation that there are indeed not simply one type but a great many, each with its place in a seasonally ever changing environment. Trying to identify them is mind boggling, even for the experts. Even a single plant varies according to the seasons, the terrain, the weather, damage by feet or animals and its stage in its growth.

A. J. Richards in his Field Handbook to British and Irish Dandelions gives us 13 "golden rules" for assessment - almost warnings to those too confident in their speedy identification. 

But here goes ...............

Let's start with basics. 

Taraxacum is a large genus of flowering plants in the family Asteraceae, which consists of species commonly known as dandelions. The scientific and hobby study of the genus is known as taraxacology [Wiki].

The Field Handbook to British and Irish Dandelion covers 239 specific species plus several more that are termed adventive. This indicates those that have arrived by chance from elsewhere. Introduced, but not naturalised. (Note : no mention of being invasive as so many garden owners term them all). 

There are several groups within this taraxacum species, each with subgroups. There are 9 taraxacum groups to watch out for : Erythrosperma, Obliqua, Palustria, Spectabilia, Crocea, Naevosa, Celtica, Hamata and Taraxacum, each of which has its subsepecies. Even the largest group known as taraxacum taraxacum covers over 120 plant subspecies. 

Here is an example growing in Heather Avenue. Alexandria. mid-February. One of the first signs of spring. We know this is a dandelion. But which one is it? Typical leaves although with rounded ends (not spear headed). Back facing "barbs" with slightly spiky, but not sharp smaller protrusion nearer the base. Whitish stems. We wil just have to wait for the flowers before trying to identify any other characteristics.

Compare the leafs of this one and the one above. They are very different. This has long continuous leafs with sudden narrow, sometimes very pointed side protrusions. The flower stalk is reddish, but the leaf spines are very pale, almost white.

This appears to be Taraxcum cordatum. Seen in March with the flower not yet open.

Common DANDELION : Taraxacum officinale, Taraxacum taraxacum,

We start with one whose name is problematic to a botanist. Taraxacum officinale refers to the "common dandelion". This name is found on such websites as that of the Wildlife Trusts, yet appears to be but a alternative to the group name of Taraxacum taraxacum which is one of the largest and most problematic groups of subspecies clearly define.

But let's keep to the common name. This is most likely the one you are familiar with. Interestingly, this does not appear as such in the Field Handbook to British and Irish Dandelion, aparently as "taraxacum" covers a very wide range of dandelions - but for our amaturism purposes, it serves us fine. Taraxacum officinale is lumping a range of dandelion species together. The Wildlife Trust website notes : The common dandelion is actually a variety of forms or 'microspecies' and there are also a number of other dandelion species, so identification can be tricky.

The cheerful bright yellow enhances our lawns and fields each spring. It even manages to brighten up the gaps in the paving....

It is much loved. A bonus to every garden. A welcome source of sustainance for many insects including butterflies. 

And yet it is much maligned.

Such contradictions in reactions. Why is it characterised as the arch-weed? Why is so much weed killer maliciously applied to it? Why do lawns of living grass have to look just like lawns of plastic replicas? Such enchanting little flowers love the real thing. Next time to watch a tv advert for weedkiller, it will most likely be victimising the innocent dandelion, reconsider what a weed really is - simply a plant in the "wrong place". 

The Scottish Wildlife Trust points out : What people don’t seem to realise is that road verges can be a useful wildlife corridor, offering food and shelter to small mammals and insects. One of the champions of these corridors is undoubtedly the humble dandelion. Persecuted by many as an invasive weed, most people don’t seem to understand its true value.

It goes on to note : The flower head or capitulum of a dandelion is actually made up of lots of individual flowers known as florets or ray flowers. Each have stamen with pollen, nectar and a single petal. This is a key feature in daisies and is part of the reason why they are so vital to pollinating insects.  With continuous flowering through spring and summer, each floret provides pollen and nectar and therefore a near continuous supply of food for visiting insects.

Of course dandelions don’t actually need insects to propagate through cross pollination. Instead their flowers develop into many seeds forming those puffed out pompom-like seedheads that many a child has fun playing with. As they blow off they have the ability to create new versions of the parent plant.

Torment the little dandelion with herbicide and you also interfere with various other creatures that depend on it. The lovely butterflies and ever helpful bees are obvious considerations. Did you know that the dandelions have their very own species of root aphid. Before you react with further horror, you need to understand the complex interdependence of many creatures. Take out one that you have a personal aversion for and the whole natural balance is undermined. 

Hardly the familiar dandelion flower yet.

Take a closer look. It is quite extrordinary.

This appears to be Taraxacum quadrans. Note the sharp out corners of the "arrowhead" leaf. The scapes (flower stalks from the root) are reddish below to pale above. The other leafs are a little spiky and alternate up their stalks.

And then it begins to open.

Cheerful little flowers.....

....magically transform themselves ......

.....into little reproductive galaxies ready for the right breeze.

Some at different stages in amongst other plants. You need to be certain which leaves belong to which plant.

This is a familiar dandelion seed head. You can clearly see the seeds ready to be dispersed; the hairy starlike "parachutes" about to be caught in the breeze are typical.

But when is what looks like a dandelion actually a dandelion? 

This one was found only a few metres away from the one shown above, at the same time and having experienced the same rain the night before. Yet it looks different. It appears that remnants of yellow petal still surround it. The rain has knocked it about and a bunch appear the wrong way around. 

This is one of the same group of dandelions. You will notice that there is no star shaped seed hair. These are straight. The actual seeds though are qutie clear. 

So are these dandelions or not? Here are some clues. 

Two stalks emerge from a shared corm.

Now look at the stalks. Keeping in mind the reason for the name dandelion refering to the prominent serated leaves looking like that of a lion, we do not find that here. This is certainly not a dandelion, but something else.


There are other plants out there that look very much like dandelions - for instance hawkweed index.asp?pageid=732540- but we are very likely missing some with West Dunbartonshire. 

Watch this space.

Dandelions are found worldwide. In fact there are about 4000 species in total. Those in the UK have much in common with those across Europe. The Taraxacum Nederlands website (see link below) further info for those who wish to delve deeper. The Nederlands claims about 1000 species. 


We are very aware of the benefit dandelions have for insects and will invariably find some on the flowers. But the dandelions do not need insects for polination. The Taraxacum Nedelands website (see link below) tells us the following:

Although dandelions do apomixia, and therefore do not actually need pollinators, you can still regularly find insects on the flowers of dandelions. In general, insects have two reasons to come up on flowers: to drink nectar (for sugar) or to eat pollen (for protein). Not all dandelions produce pollen, but all dandelions produce nectar.

In general, insects are not picky about their nectar source, and all kinds of families have been observed on dandelions, including leaf beetles, click beetles, dance flies, hoverflies, bees, bumblebees and butterflies.

Just like any plant, dandelions interact with insects. These can be divided into two groups:

Herbivorous insects that eat from the plant.


As for pollen, insects can be picky, but a number of generalists are very common, including honey bees( Apis melifera) and bumblebees ( Bombus). Several solitary bees, including sand bees (Andrena), groove bees (Halictus) and wasp bees (Nomada).

If you haven't been persuaded that the dandelion is actually something really special have a look at what David Merry writes on the The Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside (See link below for more). 

The early 17th century herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper, found it to be a ‘virtuous herb’, and when consumed in the spring you may “look a farther, you may see plainly without a pair of spectacles”. It was most often used for its cleansing quality to treat obstructions of the liver, gall bladder and spleen.

In folklore the dandelion got its nickname, the ‘shepherd’s clock’, because the flower opens after sunrise and closes at dusk.

What’s in a name; history gives us the cross-pollinated word dandelion. The name dates back to the Norman French ‘dents de lion’ or ‘teeth of the lion’.

The Very Well Health website gives us some information on its health benefits. 

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is a plant often regarded as a weed but one that may offer health benefits by acting as a diuretic ("water pill") or potentially boosting the immune system to help fight infections. It is also said to have anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antioxidant properties.1

Naturopaths and other alternative practitioners often contend that dandelion can help treat a wide range of medical conditions—including arthritis, liver disease, diabetes, obesity, and even cancer—although there is little scientific evidence to support the claims.

And for tea? We refer to the Masterclass Articles : Dandelion tea is an herbal tea made by steeping the various parts of the dandelion plant (Taraxacum officinale) in water. Dandelion leaves, flowers, and roots can all be used to make dandelion tea. The result is a nutritious herbal tea that’s packed with vitamins, antioxidants, and minerals—such as vitamin C, magnesium, calcium, and potassium. The flavor profile of dandelion tea depends on which part of the plant the tea is made from. For example, dandelion leaf tea has an earthy, astringent flavor; dandelion flower tea is mild and subtly sweet; and dandelion root tea is bold and smoky.

BOTANICAL SOCIETY OF BRITAIN AND IRELAND : https://bsbi.org/identification/taraxacum

DANDELION : This is an organisation promoting growing plants of all kinds. https://dandelion.scot/

SCOTTISH WILDLIFE TRUST : https://scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk/2016/05/dandelions-the-most-undervalued-wild-flower/

TERAXACUM NEDERLANDS : https://www.taraxacumnederland.nl/

THE GARDEN JUNGLE or Gardening to Save the Planet : Dave Goulson. 2019. Vintage. ISBN : 9781529116281.

MASTERCLASS ARTICLES : https://www.masterclass.com/articles/how-to-make-dandelion-tea

RICHARDS, A. J. : FIELD HANDBOOK TO BRITISH AND IRISH DANDELIONS. BSBI handbook number 23. Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland. 2021. ISBN 9780901. 158604 (See the website referenc). 

VERY WELL HEALTH website: https://www.verywellhealth.com/the-benefits-of-dandelion-root-89103

WILDLIFE TRUSTS website : https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife-explorer/wildflowers/common-dandelion

THE WILDLIFE TRUST FOR LANCASHIRE, MANCHESTER AND NORTH MERSEYSIDE : https://www.lancswt.org.uk/blog/david-merry/time-and-dandelion#:~:text=In%20folklore%20the%20dandelion%20got%20its%20nickname%2C%20the,de%20lion%20%E2%80%99%20or%20%E2%80%98teeth%20of%20the%20lion%E2%80%99.

WIKIPEDIA : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taraxacum

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