Whether you’ve spent hours staring at those annoying yellow flowers or are an avid food forager, you probably wonder if that is a dandelion or not?
The iconic Dandelion is seen as a pest in many parts of the world as its bright yellow flowers soon turn to seed and disperse all over your yard.
It can be challenging to distinguish the edible plants that look like Dandelions, especially when they are not in flower.
As a horticulturist, we are taught that any plant that competes with a cultivated plant is a weed. Many people will grow Dandelions for their health benefits, whereas others see them as a pesky plant to battle against-the decision is yours!
Let’s cut to the chase on this thorny issue and have a look at the Dandelion doppelgangers!
How to Identify Dandelions
Dandelions go by the scientific name of Taraxacum officinale and consist of bright yellow flowers that grow at the top of long stalks. The inflorescence of the Dandelion is made up of fine ray-like petals surrounding a central disk reaching a diameter of 1-2 inches (2.5-5cm). The leaves of the Dandelion are lobed and grow in a circular cluster at the base of the plant. Dandelions can grow up to 6 inches (15cm) tall with a spread of 6 inches (15cm) the length of a dollar bill!
One of the most annoying aspects of these perennial herbaceous plants that think they are flowers is their taproot that descends several feet deep. If you don’t fully harvest the whole root system, they can grow back thick and more substantial later on!
Where Do Dandelions Grow?
Dandelions are not fussy when it comes to their habitat, and you can see them growing in lawns, meadows, fields, and along roadsides. They are often regarded as weeds but also have medicinal uses and are a common food source in many parts of the world.
Because of their long taproot and adaptability to various soil conditions, they can grow where other plants can’t. Originally from the temperate regions of Europe and Asia, they can now be found on every continent other than Antarctica. Their tolerance to hot and cold temperatures makes them a hardy plant that just keeps going and going.
As they tend to go dormant during the cold winter months, their whereabouts are often challenging to detect, but as the spring approaches you can be faced with a bounty of yellow-headed beasts!
Even though Dandelions are considered a weed to most gardeners, they have been used for centuries as a medicinal herb. They are known to be packed with vitamins and minerals that are used to treat a variety of ailments, such as digestive issues and infections. The whole plant, including the large taproot, is harvested and used as a diuretic tonic- which is actually amazing when you consider how little effort we put into growing them!
After harvesting the Dandelions, the young leaves are used in salads or soups like any other leafy green veg. Many people cultivate Dandelions to make herbal teas which are known to improve liver function. On the contrary, the flowers of the Dandelions are fermented in water, sugar, and yeast to create a flowery-scented wine.
The use of Dandelions doesn’t stop there, the flowers have been used as a natural dye for fabric, and the root and leaves are used in a range of skincare products as an anti-inflammatory.
With all this being said, I still recommend consulting a doctor or herbalist before making your own concoctions!
So now you know where to expect to find Dandelions, how to identify them, and their uses- let’s look at the plants with leaves that look like Dandelions.
With all the possible uses of Dandelions, knowing which ones to harvest is essential. Many of their imposters are not edible or hold the same nutritional properties as the Taraxacum officinale.
Here are five of the common look-alikes:
1. False Dandelion
The False Dandelion is exactly how it sounds! Often known as Catsear, Flatweed, or Hairy catsear, this perennial is an edible lookalike with hairier leaves. The flowers of the False Dandelion (Hypochaeris radicata) appear the same as the Taraxacum officinale and will develop into the notorious parachute seed pod we all recognize from our childhood.
The foliage at the base of the False Dandelion reaches 8 inches (20cm) long and consists of deep-toothed lobed leaves. Another way to distinguish the False Dandelion from the true Dandelion is that the stems of the False Dandelion are forked and solid rather than unforked and hollow like the true one.
You will find the False Dandelion growing in the same areas as the true Dandelion, so if you have lawns or live near meadows, you will likely identify them.
They are scientifically known as Leontodon spp. The Hawkbit is part of the Asteraceae family, and the Leontodon spp is known to have over 40 relatives. You can identify the difference between the Hawkbit and the true Dandelion by the leaf shape.
The leaves of the Hawkbit have more indentations and deeper teeth and are hairier than the true Dandelions. The leaves are only one of the differences with this imposter though; the hawkbit flowers tend to be less showy and smaller.
When it comes to the reproductive habits of these plants, there is also a difference. Hawkbits reproduce asexually by cloning their roots. This cloning results in large patches dense with Hawkbits rather than the sparsely dispersed seeds of the true dandelion. The young, tender leaves of the common hawkbit are sometimes used in salads and teas; however, it is still essential to correctly identify the species before you consume it.
This herbaceous perennial spreads through seeds and rhizomes, so it is improbable you will see one of these on its lonesome. The Coltsfoot is scientifically known as Tussilago farfara; the leaves are deeply lobed and have a horseshoe shape, making it different from other plants that have leaves that look like Dandelions.
Often found in disturbed areas, this robust plant blooms a yellow flower before the leaves even appear- talk about eager! The flowers consist of yellow florets with an outer layer of bracts (a small cluster of flowers in its axil).
The height of the Coltsfoot ranges from 3.9-11 inches (10-27cm), making it taller growing than the true Dandelion. The Coltsfoot is not a Dandelion doppelganger to mess with- it’s classed as likely toxic. Unfortunately, this plant contains hepatotoxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which are proven to damage the lungs and liver.
The likeness of Sowthistle to Dandelions is uncanny, as the yellow blooms resemble the actual Dandelion flowers. The leaves are lobed and deeply toothed, but the main difference is the lighter color and waxy coating.
Sowthistle is found in various habitats, including meadows, waste areas, and roadsides. Another telltale sign of the Sowthistle is that the flowers often bloom in clusters at the top of the stem. In contrast, the true Dandelion shoots a single flower from the base of the plant.
Scientifically known as Sonchus oleraceus, this annual produces a stem that reaches 11-39 inches (30-100cm) high. They reproduce through seed dispersal and are considered invasive in most parts of the world. That said, the Sowthistle is an edible plant often used as a healthy green in salads and teas.
5. Mountain Dandelion
This replica of the Dandelion is not tolerant to shady areas like the original dandelion, so it is likely found on mountainsides and foothills- hence its name! The foliage of the mountain Dandelion is an apparent difference between the two species as it produces strappy grass-like leaves from the base of the plant.
The leaves are waxy and produce milky latex when broken. What makes the Agoseris glauca (Scientific name) so similar to the true dandelion is the flower head. Yellow flowers bloom from May to June and are singular on the top of the flower stalk. As they are still members of the Asteraceae family, they are cousins of the Dandelion and have the same daisy-like flower head.
Because of their different foliage, the Mountain Dandelions is seen as a wildflower rather than a weed and is cultivated for aesthetic and edible purposes. Many people chew the Mountain Dandelion latex sap as it solidifies as gum. At the same time, its other uses are topical and used on sores and rashes.
While there are many plants that look like Dandelion leaves, there are some distinctive differences between the species. You can make a confident identification by understanding the differences, whether the flower’s shape or the reproductive process.
As many plants have toxicity risks, it’s highly recommended to check with a field expert or experienced food forager before making a meal out of them!
We can sustainably enjoy wild plants’ benefits by being cautious and respectful of the natural world.
FAQ About Plants That Look Like Dandelion Leaves
Is there a toxic dandelion look-alike?
A plant that looks like Dandelion leaves and is toxic is the Coltsfoot Tussilago farfara. It is known to contain hepatotoxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which can cause damage to the liver and lungs.
How long is the dandelion season?
The Dandelion season runs from May to October. May and June are when you will see an abundance of flowers. Mature plants will likely bloom again in autumn before the cool temperatures kick in.
Why are dandelions a problem?
The reason why most gardeners see Dandelions as a problem is because of their reproductive process. The fluffy seed pods are so fragile that even the slightest gust of wind can send them flying. Under the ground, they grow a long tap root that can suck the nutrients out of the soil from the neighboring plants.
Do dandelions last all summer?
Dandelions can be seen all summer, but they are more evident in late spring and early summer. As they are perennial, they will slow their growth rate during winter and bounce back in the spring.