Dandelion is one of the most recognizable plants of disturbed places and open fields in America. Most folks can identify this golden bloomed, saw toothed plant. It is the 6th most distributed plant in the US! It is abundant, common and wonderful. Native to Eurasia, it has now naturalized throughout North America, southern Africa, South America, New Zealand, Australia, and India. It occurs in all 50 states of the USA and most of Canada. Known as dent de leon in French because of its toothed leaves, one can see the short jump it must have made to earn the name Dandelion to us English speakers.
Dandelion(Taraxacum officinale)is very interesting to me not just because of its versatility and beauty, but because of its history. It is believed that dandelions arrived in America on the Mayflower, having sailed across the ocean with the Puritans as seeds intended to be grown for medicine. Its use in history as a medicine and food goes back thousands of years, and to detail it all could be a book in itself.
The first recorded information about dandelion comes from Roman times. Use has been noted by the Anglo Saxon tribes of Britain and the Normans of France as well. In the tenth and eleventh centuries there was mention of dandelions used for medicinal purposes in the works of Arabian physicians. All in all dandelion has been a well loved, well used and well traveled plant.
When dandelion was brought to America by the Puritans, it was brought mainly as a medicine plant, as well as for wine. As we know, dandelion is a voracious reproducer, and it is said by 1672 that the plant was well established in New England. We can assume that it spread South with the onslaught of European settlers and continued to arrive on boats. One day it would make its way to Appalachia and eventually become integrated into Native American healing traditions as well.
In England and other parts of Europe, dandelion was used to treat fevers, boils, eye problems, diarrhea, fluid retention, liver congestion, heartburn, and skin ailments. The white latex was used in British folk medicine to cure warts. As a powerful diuretic, it also earned the folk name 'pissabeds' and was believed to cause children to wet the bed by so much as touching it. The leaves were used in Scotland and Ireland to treat stings, much like plantain and dock leaves. The leaves were also eaten in bread and butter sandwiches and believed to be an ulcer cure. In Ireland it is also interesting to note that it was believed to be heart medicine, a uniquely Irish folk belief.
In North America, dandelion wine was used, drunk hot, as a cure for colds. People also wore bits of the root around the neck for cataracts. In Pennsylvania, a cough syrup was reputedly made from lemon, sugar and the blossoms. In Appalachia, chickweed and dandelion leaves were cooked together, the resulting liquid was then mixed with vinegar and drunk as a tonic. The root can also be roasted and brewed into a fine coffee substitute. Native Americans used it similarly, yet also used it for female troubles, and would eat the flowers for cramps.
Dandelion has many medicinal and culinary uses, but it also was used in different charms and folk rituals. It's magical use goes back to Greece where John Evelyn, in his Acetaria(1), says of dandelion: 'With thie homely salley, Hecate entertained Theseus.' We can see 'homely salley' to mean, humble or homely salad. The association with Hecate bring dandelion to an underwordly and witch's herb association.
In the folk tradition of German Appalachians, there was a charm to ensure the holder always made the right decision. It involved taking a skunk cabbage leaf gathered in May under the sign of Leo, then wrapping it in a laurel leaf, adding a dandelion to it and carrying it on your person. There are many other interesting American folk traditions and beliefs about dandelions as well, here are a few of them:
"Folklore has an interesting spin on determining whether or not you are loved. Instead of picking the petals off a daisy, try blowing the seeds off a dandelion globe. It's said that if you can blow all the seeds off with one blow, then you are loved with a passionate love. If some seeds remain, then your lover has reservations about the relationship. If a lot of the seeds still remain on the globe, then you are not loved at all, or very little."Unusual Vegetables, Something New for this Year's Garden, Rodale Press Emmaus, PA.
"The dandelion is called the rustic oracle; its flowers always open about 5 A.M. and shut at 8 P.M., serving the shepherd for a clock." Folkard (448. 309), from "The Child and Childhood in Folk-Thought," by Alexander F. Chamberlain.
Sarah Anne Lawless, on her wonderful site, also mentions the sympathetic relationship between the famous Herbalist Culpepper's observations that dandelion "openeth passages" not just in the body, but that this weed with airy association also opens the passages to the spirit realms. This may be why it is associated with psychic abilities and spirit summoning and communication. A true hedge crosser's herb.
Leave a cup of dandelion root tea steaming by your bedside to attract spirits with the element of air as the steam rises towards the other worlds. You can also enact your childish heart by blowing the fluffy seed heads, sending the small seeds airborne, carrying your wishes skywards.
The very structure of the dandelion lends itself to occult thoughts. It's deep roots bring rich minerals from the dark, unseen places and make them available, much like the witch reaches into those secret, dark places for their power. Their often large, gnarled roots can also make fine poppets and alrauns as well.
It's unyielding and wild spreading has a comforting anarchy that bothers the suburbanite and delights those who watch things crumble from the shadowy hills, laughing bitterly as people attempt to destroy that which can help and heal them. It is a witch's ally through and through.
Wigginton, Eliot. Foxfire 2: Ghost Stories, Spring Wild Plant Foods, Spinning and Weaving, Midwifing, Burial Customs, Corn Shuckin's, Wagon Making and More Affairs of Plain Living. Garden City, NY: Anchor/Doubleday, 1973.
Grieve, M. A Modern Herbal; the Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folk-lore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs, & Trees with All Their Modern Scientific Uses. New York: Dover Publications, 1971.
Hatfield, Gabrielle. Encyclopedia of Folk Medicine: Old World and New World Traditions. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2004.
Milnes, Gerald. Signs, Cures, & Witchery: German Appalachian Folklore. Knoxville: U of Tennessee, 2007
Church, Bill. Medicinal Plants, Trees & Shrubs of Appalachia. Mustang, OK: Tate & Enterprises, 2012.
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