June 29, 2022
As Zena and I got to the far end our walk this morning we came across an unmown lawn that had dozens of yellow flowers individually spaced across the entire area. While I am well familiar with the dandelions that dominated our lawn as a child, the stems and flowers of these plants seemed somehow different. When I tried to identify the flower on my phone app it alternated between calling it flat weed and then saying it was a dandelion. I took a picture so I could unravel the mystery for why different apps, and even the same app at different times, would provide contrary information on this simple unknown flower.
When I looked online, I found flat weed (Hypochaeris radicata or Hypochoeris radicata), is also known as cats-ear or false dandelion, and is a perennial, low-lying edible herb often found in lawns. The plant is native to Europe but has been introduced to the Americas, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, where it can be an invasive weed. It is listed as a noxious weed in the northwestern US state of Washington. Its name is derived from Greek “hypo” (under) “choeris” (young pig), so the name should rightly be spelled Hypochoeris. The adjective radicata means “with conspicuous roots” in Latin (somehow, this plant did not appear to me as “under a young pig with copious roots”). In English, cats-ear is derived from the words “cat’s ear”, and refers to the shape and fine hair on the leaves resembling the ear of a cat. The plant is known as false dandelion because it is commonly mistaken for true dandelions. Both plants carry similar flowers which form windborne seeds, but the cats-ear’s flowering stems are forked and solid, whereas dandelion stems are un-forked and hollow. Both plants have a rosette of leaves and a central taproot. The leaves of dandelions are jagged in appearance, whereas those of cats-ear are more lobe-shaped and hairy. Both plants are said to have similar uses, and both are considered weeds.
All parts of the catsear plant are edible, but the leaves and roots are what are most often harvested. The leaves are bland in taste but can be eaten raw in salads, steamed, or used in stir-fries. Some recommend mixing them with other vegetables. Older leaves can become tough and fibrous, but younger leaves are suitable for consumption. In contrast to the edible leaves of dandelion, catsear leaves only rarely have some bitterness. The root can be roasted and ground to form a coffee substitute. I have been told since I was a child that the dandelion greens were poisonous, but that is not the case. Dandelion is taken by some for its healing properties (unproven) and many people eat it as a vegetable. You can eat all parts of the dandelion plant, including the flowers. Dandelion root is often used as a dietary supplement, whereas dandelion greens are common in salads and soups. Consumed in moderation or as a tea it may provide several interesting benefits that range from diuretic, detoxifying, and acne-fighting properties to protection against eye diseases, cardiovascular illnesses, and intestinal problems. This seems to be the same go to list of benefits I have come across for other non-traditional health foods.
THOUGHTS: One of the Cub Scout badges (arrow points) I earned dealt with wild edible plants, and one of the plants I tried to eat was the dandelion. My (memory says) handbook said the leafy green leaves were edible, but you needed to blanch them several times to remove the toxins present. I blanched the leaves, and the resulting greens had the texture and look of boiled spinach. Perhaps that is why I still do not eat cooked spinach. I have shared the story of my dandelion experience many times, and it was not until today that I realized the greens are not toxic and do not need to be blanched. I still doubt I would have made dandelion greens a steady part of my diet, but now I know they are not toxic. Misinformation is often provided through publications, friends, or social media which we take as fact because of the “trusted” source. We need to learn just because “someone says so” does not make it true. Act for all. Change is coming and it starts with you.