Dandelion and cat’s ear

DandelionFor our plant comparison we are going to look at dandelion (which most people know) and cat’s ear (a similar looking plant).  Beginning with this image of a lush dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), we can see lots of flower heads and a number of new heads forming, along with some closed heads which bloomed recently.  The dandelion could almost be an evergreen plant as it seems to grow year-round — at least whenever the temperature stays above freezing.  Let’s go through the dandelion’s life cycle and then check out the cat’s ear similarities and differences.

The dandelion’s flower head begins developing low in the center of the rosette of leaves.

DandelionGradually, the stem supporting the new flower head elongates until it rises well above the basal rosette.

DandelionThe dandelion’s hollow stem exudes a milky white substance (a type of latex) when broken.  After the flower head has blossomed, it closes in on itself . . .

Dandelion. . . converts those fertilized ovaries to seeds with wings . . .

Dandelion. . . and re-opens to create the familiar seed head which, once again, rises high above the basal rosette of leaves.

DandelionNote the fleshy stem supporting the seed head.  Here’s a closer view of that head with its symmetrical arrangement of the winged seeds.

DandelionAfter all the seeds have dispersed, what remains is the head’s receptacle.  It, too, has a lovely pattern.

DandelionHere is a final view of a dandelion plant.  You can see that most of its flowers have converted to seeds and/or have sent the new seeds on their way — to the irritation of people who want perfect lawns — and to the delight of herbalists and wild food foragers.

DandelionCat’s ear (Hypochoeris radicata) looks, on first glance, very much like the dandelion — especially when you see an area full of the plants.

Cat's earLet’s look more closely at this plant.  Here is its flower head . . .

Cat's ear. . . which, in isolation, looks like a dandelion flower head.  However, note its more wiry stem in the photo above and the next photo.

Cat's earYou can see a developing flower head in the background of the above photo.  This flower head looks similar to — and yet, different from — the dandelion flower head.  The difference is subtle.

As we stand back and look at the entire cat’s ear plant, we can see its flower heads rise on stems above the basal rosette of leaves.

Cat's earAlthough frequently a single flower head grows on a single stem (like the dandelion), it is just as likely the cat’s ear flower heads will appear on a branched stem.  In contrast, the dandelion’s single flower head will only appear by itself on an unbranched stem.  Along with the branched stems, this next photo shows the wiriness of the stems and the different looking unopened flower heads.

Cat's earAfter the flower heads have bloomed and become seeds, the heads re-open and spread their winged seeds — just like the dandelion.

Cat's earHere’s a view of the basal rosette of a cat’s ear plant.

Cat's earAnd this is where we can finally see some distinguishing characteristics between dandelion and cat’s ear.  The cat’s ear leaves are quite hairy while the dandelion leaves are smooth.  When you look closely at the shape of the leaves — by placing them side by side — you can see the dandelion is definitely sharply toothed, with its teeth pointing back toward the center of the plant.

Cat's ear and dandelionThose softly hairy leaves probably account for the common name given to cat’s ear.

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22 Responses to Dandelion and cat’s ear

  1. David says:

    Thank you so much for this comparison. I read more on Wikipedia about cooking them, but liked all your photos! I will have to try eating them once. lol

  2. Billie Keaffaber says:

    This brings memories of my grandmother in Ashland Ohio going picking dandelions greens to cook and me playing with the flowers as a kid she got me wanting to identify different plants

  3. Tom says:

    I have another plant that looks similar to catsear, it has a yellow flower and the root crown leaves look similar to dandelion or catsear, but has long skinny leaves on the flower stem that look almost like small curly dock leaves. What is it?

    • Angelyn says:

      Tom, unfortunately there are a number of plants which are similar to the common dandelion. Another one I have here is called Meadow hawkweed (Hieracium caespitosum) which has narrower basal leaves. This year I realized there’s even another yellow-flowered plant in my yard whose basal leaves remind me of dandelion so much that when I first saw it in the early spring I thought it was actually a dandelion. I have yet to study the field guides in order to identify it. I could not begin to name your plant without a number of really good photos of it so I suggest checking a field guide for plants local to you.

    • Sukey Love says:

      Might be hawkweed.
      Hieracium – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
      en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hieracium‎

  4. Pingback: Yellow field flowers | Identify that Plant

  5. Rebeka says:

    Can we eat the cats ears? Thanks for the photos they are very clear.

  6. Stella Faith says:

    I am getting confused!
    I think from many other sites that this is definitely a Hawkweed (Hieracium)
    Am I right or wrong?
    Someone please write me to confirm! Thank you!

    • Angelyn says:

      Stella, neither one of the above plants is Hawkweed (Hieracium spp.). The two plants featured above are Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and Cat’s ear (Hypochoeris radicata).

      For a comparison between Cat’s ear and Meadow hawkweed (Hieracium caespitosum), read the following blog post: http://www.identifythatplant.com/yellow-field-flowers/ You can easily find this second blog post by searching for “hawkweed” in the search box at the top of this page.

  7. Mari Maloney says:

    I am so happy to find the definition and the differences between these two plants! I have been telling my friends that they are not the same plant! I am a photographer and needed to get this ID’d before I printed the wrong name of the plant I shot!
    YAY!
    I know it seems silly, but a great sigh of relief!

    Mari

  8. Nannette says:

    Incredible points. Outstanding arguments.
    Keep up the great spirit.

  9. L R says:

    These are very interesting comparisons! I was wondering if there was a plant which resembles the common dandelion that is poisonous?

  10. Gail says:

    Thank you so much for the clear explanation and fabulous pictures. My yard is full of cat’s ear plants and I thought they were a type of dandelion and couldn’t find out anything to give me a hint they were another type of plant altogether. I was so relieved to find your page!!! I was wondering if they were edible as they are so similar to dandelions. Now I can look them up and find out about them. Again, thank you.

    • Angelyn says:

      Gail, I have read that Cat’s ear is edible. I have not personally tried to eat this plant though. I suggest looking for a reputable forager who might have more info about this.

  11. graham bunting says:

    I was wondering if the plants on my local heath were cats ears or not, so googled it. Thank you for such a definitive and well presented answer.

    And, yes they are.

  12. Bev says:

    Thank you so much for this informative article. I too thought I had dandelions in my garden, but now know they are cats ears.
    I’m looking forward to following your links to check out the properties and benefits of cats ears.
    Do you have any links of a reputable forager?
    Thanks once again
    Bev
    Johannesburg, South Africa

  13. Glen B says:

    I like your postings.
    Edible is not the same as palatable. Most of these composites are edible but bitter – even taraxacum / true dandelion is too bitter at the wrong season. Sort of like lettuce if allowed to grow too long or in the wrong conditions – similar plants and flavors. Arthur Lee Jacobson (wise eccentric plant person) commends Hairy Cat Ear as better than dandelion. http://www.arthurleej.com/a-catsear.html Another one of the milder composites is nipplewort – a bit fuzzy but quite tasty.
    My favorite way to eat dandelion is early spring when the flower buds are tight in the crown. I pop the fat flower buds out of the crown and into my mouth. Not sweet like candy, but bursting with flavor and only mildly bitter.
    Dandelion thrives in rich soil, HCE does best in poor soil. HCE also has a biochemical way of inhibiting both grass and itself, so that one rarely sees HCE as a wall to wall mass, but rather patchy, and a dead zone under the flat leaves, (that fortunately fills in quickly once the HCE is cut out).

    • Angelyn says:

      Thanks for your contribution, Glen. I also enjoy the dandelion flowers. I usually pinch off the outer green portion and savor the yellow flowers. Next chance I get, I’ll taste-test the buds while they are tight in the crown as you have suggested.

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