Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The many names of the dandelion (Taraxacum officinale).

Deze post in het Nederlands: klik hier.

Why the dandelion is not named a Leontodon (Hawkbit).

Who doesn´t know the dandelion, this common yet so beautiful flower? The dandelion does not exist of a single species, but of an agglomeration of many micro species, which is partly the result of its possibility of multiplication by means of unfertilized seeds (cloning). The plant forms a rosette with strongly toothed leaves and the stems are hollow with on top a flower head consisting of many yellow ray florets. The dandelion is listed among the composites or Asteraceae. The plant has a surprising number of applications, but to avoid too long  a post only its naming is discussed here. Already many years ago I noticed that the meaning of dandelion in English and Spanish is "lion´s tooth", although in the Netherlands the name lion´s tooth is reserved for the genus Leontodon (hawkbits), while the dandelion is called "horse-flower". However, to make the confusion complete some Spaniards call the dandelion "meacama (= piss-a-bed) and the hawkbits (Leontodon)  they call "diente de león". So this asked for a little research.


The original Latin name for dandelion which was given t this plant by Linnaeus in 1753 was "Leontodon taraxacum". The reason for the genus name seems pretty clear: in Greek Leontodon means lion´s tooth and this was (and still is) a common name of the dandelion in many languages. The origin of the species name taraxacum is less clear. It is known that around the year 900 the Persian scientist el Razi called the plant "tarashaquq", also the dandelion was used in the treatment of an eye disease called "taraxis", while others think that the name may be derived from the Greek word "taraxos" (disorder). later other scientists changed the name into "Taraxacum officinale" hereby elevating the old species name to genus level, while the new species name "officinale" means"from the pharmacy", this because of the granted medicinal properties.


The Dutch name horse-flower first appeared in 1906 as a general accepted name in the book "Dutch plant names" of Henry Heukels. The name probably originated because of the fact that horses (also rabbits and pigs) love to eat the leaves of this plant and that it was commonly used as feed. Sometimes it was even named "horse-lettuce". Of course there are other explanations.


It is curious that the dandelion in many European languages is called "lion´s tooth", while in the Netherlands this name is used to identify the genus Leontodon (leon = lion and odons = tooth). Moreover, the Leontodon looks a lot like the dandelion, where does this confusion actually come from?

The European common name "lion´s tooth" is due to the highly serrated leaves that resemble the teeth of a lion and precisely because this name is geographically so widespread it is probably a very old name. For example, the English name dandelion comes from the French "dent de lion", which probably dates from the time just after the Norman conquest of England in 1066, when many French words were added to the Old English. So it is not so strange that Linnaeus gave the Latin genus name Leontodon (= lion´s tooth) to the dandelion. In the first edition of Species Plantarum (Linnaeus, 1753) several dandelion-like flowers (the hawkbits) were also classified in the genus Leontodon, of which the dandelion could be considered as the “godfather”. However, it is funny to see that other botanists soon found out that the dandelion is actually not so much related to the hawkbits and for this reason it was taken out of the genus Leontodon and renamed into “Taraxacum officinale”. Of course it was easier to rename only one species, instead of several species, even dough the dandelion had given its name to the genus.

Examples of languages here the dandelion is called lion´s tooth are: English (dandelion and lion´s tooth), Spanish (diente de leon), Portuguese (dente de Leäo), Italian (diente di leone), German (Löwezahn) Norwegian (Løvetann), Danish (Løvetand), Catalan (dent de leo) and Welsh (dant y llew).

The dandelion is a plant with a lot of qualities and therefore it has also a lot of other widespread common names e.g. piss flower, endive or chicory and mole´s salad.

The Dutch name piss flower can also be found in English (pee-a-bed, wet-a-bed or piss-a-bed), French (pissenlit or pisse au lit), Spanish (meacama), Catalan (pixallits) or Italian (piscialetto). These names are due to the diuretic properties of the dandelion, so it´s better not to consume a dandelion lettuce just before going to bed.

In English, the dandelion is also called white or wild endive, while in Turkish it is also called black endive or chicory, this last name because the outside of the white root is dark colored. Al ready around the year 900 the Persian scientist el Razi wrote "the tarashaquq is like the chicory". The similarity between endive (a kind of chicory) and the dandelion is both due to the physical resemblance of the leaves and to their properties. Endive, chicory and wild chicory all belong to the genus Chicorium and can be eaten as a slightly bitter vegetable, just like the dandelion.  Also, the roots of both the chicory and the dandelion can be used as a coffee substitute.

Another name for dandelion is mole´s salad (in French "salad du taupe" and in Dutch “molsla”). So as mentioned above, the leaves are edible but somewhat bitter, which can be reduced by covering them with soil. Formerly, these bleached leaves were sometimes searched in molehills, hence the name.

The dandelion has many other names, some of which are related to the puff-ball stage of the flower, but this post is already long enough, isn´t it?

Dandelions grow often just along the road, which in some Northern Italian dialects led to the name "dog-piss" (pisacan), for obvious reasons.

To obtain 1 kg of honey the bees must visit over 100.000 dandelion flowers. There also exists a dandelion honey which can be made by boiling the flowers.


  1. are the leaves also know as poor mans lettuce thank you fro you help it great knowlage and lovely plants

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