Dandelions: The Plant That Was Never Supposed to Have Been in America

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Photo: Courtesy David Luther Thomas
Photo: Courtesy David Luther Thomas

If time travel were somehow possible and the average American had the opportunity to step back in time 500 years, he or she would encounter a North American continent that would appear almost alien from the place they know as home today.

Towering trees 50 feet around dotted the virgin forests of the nation’s East, blanketing a landscape that closely resembled an unexplored jungle.  Roaming cougars silently stalked their prey for days in the dark mountains of Appalachia, letting out their hellish cries each night.

Put perhaps what the time traveler would find most incredible about the old “New World” would be what wasn’t here a half-millennia ago: There were no apple trees, no pigs and not a single horse on the continent — each of these items were imported from Europe.

Most notably, however, there wasn’t a single dandelion to be found from Canada to South America.

Dandelions have for countless millennia served as a staple plant throughout Europe and Asia, with even the Ancient Egyptians using them for medicinal purposes. And for good reason.  According to the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, “Dandelions are more nutritious than most of the vegetables in your garden. They were named after lions because their lion-toothed leaves healed so many ailments, great and small: baldness, dandruff, toothache, sores, fevers, rotting gums, weakness, lethargy and depression. Not until the twentieth century was the underlying cause of many of these symptoms realized: vitamin deficiencies… They have more vitamin A than spinach, more vitamin C than tomatoes, and are a powerhouse of iron, calcium and potassium.”

In Midevial England, the yellow flowers were celebrated both as a decorative yard flower as well as a source of medicine.

Unfortunately for colonists to the New World, the strange land they encountered was void of this terrific plant.

In an effort to have a reminder of home, dandelion seeds were quickly brought to America and planted throughout New England.

However “Once out of the bottle… the genie proved uncontrollable,” writes Nature North.

Having no natural predator, the invasive species thrived in the new world, moving westward at a dizzying pace, reaching the Pacific Coast centuries before the same land was ever settled by the descendants of the individuals who first introduced the plant to the New World.

In no time at all, several generations of dandelion seeds had been windswept throughout the colonies and within only a few short decades, dandelions were growing throughout the continent.

As settlers moved west, they were greeted by a European immigrant that had reached the unsettled lands west of the Mississippi long before their arrival — the dandelion.

Embracing the plant, American settlers used the dandelion to make wine and dye, season salads, and even to serve as a coffee substitute when baked and ground.

Today, the dandelion is one of the few plants found in all 50 states and are even encouraged in pastures, acting as an important source of food for cattle and sheep.

So the next time you’re ready to tackle that innocent smiling child who is on the brink of scattering dozens of those lighter than air seeds with one sharp exhale of their lungs, just keep in mind that long before you were ever born, or even many of your ancestors were born dandelions had subdued the entire continent and the descendants of the Mayflower have been in an unwinnable quest to rid the land of this once celebrated flower.

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