In the last two blog posts, you have seen four different types of dandelions plus two ‘false dandelions’, the cat’s ear and hawksbeard. Two more potential look-alikes are offered here; prickly lettuce and sowsthistle/milkthistle.
Prickly lettuce (Lactuca Serriola) has a yellow flower similar to the dandelion. You can read more and see photos here. Clearly the leaves and the stem on which they grow are different in many ways from what you now know (if you didn’t before) are the features of the common dandelion. In addition, the green colour is different between the two plants.
The Key to Tasmania’s Vascular Plants says ‘Lactuca serriola (Prickly Lettuce or Compass Plant) is a common and widespread herbaceous weed, up to about 1 m tall. It is usually easily recognised by the leaves with a row of narrow spines along the margins and spines on the midrib.’ See the Greg Jordan photo below for the leaf details which are nothing like those of the common dandelion.
Plants for a Future says ‘Young leaves – raw or cooked. A bitter flavour. The young tender leaves are mild and make an excellent salad, but the whole plant becomes bitter as it gets older, especially when coming into flower. As a potherb it needs very little cooking. Large quantities can cause digestive upsets. Young shoots – cooked. Used as an asparagus substitute. An edible oil is obtained from the seed. The oil must be refined before it is edible.’
The UTAS website, for keys to plant identifications, provides detailed information ‘Tasmania has one native and two introduced species of Sonchus (Sow Thistles). These are all short-lived herbs with erect, leafy stems, taproots and abundant milky latex.’ Photos of the sowsthistle below are by Greg Jordan unless otherwise indicated.
‘S. oleraceus is a very common weed in gardens and waste areas. It is a medium-sized to large, erect herb with soft spines on the leaves. It exudes milky sap when damaged. It is almost ubiquitous in waste places and unkempt gardens in urban areas and is widespread on roadsides and in agricultural areas.’
Information about the culinary use of this Sonchus oleraceus variety can be read here ‘Young leaves – raw or cooked. This species has the nicest tasting leaves of the genus, they usually have a mild agreeable flavour especially when young, though turn bitter as they age. They can be added to salads, cooked like spinach or used in soups etc. The leaves contain about 30 – 40mg of vitamin C per 100g, 1.2% protein, 0.3% fat, 2.4% carbohydrate, 1.2% ash. Stems – cooked like asparagus or rhubarb. They are best if the outer skin is removed first. Young root – cooked. Young roots are juicy. They are woody and not very acceptable. The milky sap has been used as a chewing gum by the Maoris of New Zealand.’ The next two photos are by Greg Jordan.
The following photo of the S. oleraceus variety is by Harry Rose.
‘S. hydrophilus is a widespread and relatively common weed in Tasmania. It is a medium-sized to large, erect herb with quite stiff leaves. It exudes milky sap when damaged.’ Photos by Greg Jordan.
’Sonchus asper is a widespread and common weed in Tasmania. It is a medium-sized to large, erect herb with soft spines especially on the edges of the leaves. It exudes milky sap when damaged.’
The leaves of the plant can be steeped in hot water and honey added to mask the bitter taste before being drunk as a tea. Old leaves and stalks can be bitter but young leaves have a flavour similar to lettuce. Leaves are eaten as salad greens or cooked like spinach. Blanching or boiling the leaves removes the bitter flavour. Stems are cooked like asparagus or rhubarb. Apparently they taste better if the outer skin is removed.
Is there an easy way to make your identification of these weeds?
Look at the leaves – that is where your best clues are for a casual visual identification. I hope you can see clear differences between dandelions and those weeds which have similarities but which are not dandelions.
By focusing on the yellow flower the dangers of being misled or confused are enormous; there are many weeds with a similar yellow flower. Instead, if there is only one flower on a single stem then simply check the shape of the leaves. If the leaves are toothed with the points facing into the centre then you are likely to be looking at a genuine common dandelion.
Now you know, I hope you will harvest and use the common dandelion (taraxacum officinale) in salads and cooking (remembering the leaves of prickly lettuce and sowsthistle can also be eaten). Healthline reports ‘Dandelion greens can be eaten cooked or raw and serve as an excellent source of vitamins A, C and K. They also contain vitamin E, folate and small amounts of other B vitamins.
What’s more, dandelion greens provide a substantial amount of several minerals, including iron, calcium, magnesium and potassium. The root of the dandelion is rich in the carbohydrate inulin, which is a type of soluble fibre found in plants that supports the growth and maintenance of a healthy bacterial flora in your intestinal tract.’
Please send me your stories and photos of cooking or eating dandelions or ‘fake’ dandelions to email@example.com.