The name dandelion comes from the French for lions tooth (dent de lion). This is in reference to the jagged tooth like leaves that characterise the dandelion plant (Taracum officinale). Generally, gardeners think of dandelion as a weed on account of its aggressive growth into lawns and borders. However, traditionally dandelion is a very widely used medicinale herb and the leaves of dandelion are also used nutritionally to add flavour to salads. Historically, the greeks, Arabs and English have all used dandelion as a medicine, although as trade routes flourished the use of dandelion became more widespread. Its current availability as tablets and decoctions means that the pharmacological properties of dandelion can be obtained without the need to harvest the plant directly as was the traditional method. However, nutritionally the dandelion plant can still be enjoyed fresh from the garden, with its lush green leaves making an excellent salad base. The traditional viewpoint is that dandelion leaves and roots are diuretics and liver tonics.
Dandelion is a rich source of phytochemicals including the terpenoids taraxerol, taraxacin, lactucin and taraxasterol. Dandelion also contains chlorogenic acid and caffeic acid, two antioxidant compounds also present in the coffee bean. Phytosterols are present in the dandelion plant including sitosterol, campesterol, taraxasterol and stigmasterol. Dandelion also contains the flavonoid luteolin as glycosides, as well as high concentrations of potassium, carotenoids and vitamin C. In fact dandelion is particularly rich in potassium (~300 mg per 100 grams), and is often therefore used by herbalists to reverse low potassium levels. The root also contains sesquiterpene lactones and taraxoside, that give the root its bitter taste. The different nutritional properties of the root and leaves are interesting because the leaves may possess better diuretic properties than the root. Studies on rats show dandelion leaves are as effective as the prescription diuretic furosemide at causing diuresis.
The exact reason for dandelions diuretic effects are not fully understood, but it is likely that a number of the components of the leaves are responsible for this action. Dandelion can also improve the liver function through improving the condition of the gallbladder. In this regard dandelion has a choleretic effect (increases bile flow) and a cholagogic effect (increases the contraction of the bile duct). In addition, traditional herbalism has used dandelion as a digestive tonic. Dandelion may stimulate the appetite in cases where appetite has fallen, reduce abdominal bloating and cramps, as well as stimulate the flow of hydrochloric acid from the stomach. As well as being an important herb in its own right, dandelion is useful to combine with nettle for its diuretic effects or with milk thistle for its general liver tonic and digestive effects. Supplements or eating the whole plant should produce similar effects, although whole herb preparations are recommended because the active ingredients have not been identified.