The sordid tale of the dandelion
Nothing upsets lawn and garden enthusiasts more than to look across a yellow sea of flowers flourishing in their lawns and flower beds. The dandelion has been the bane of almost every gardener and property owner across North America for over a century, but it wasn’t always this way.
Before the arrival of the first settlers there wasn’t a single dandelion in what would become North America. The dandelion ventured across the oceans with the early Europeans and not by accident. They were a vital food and medicinal crop. Believe it or not, they were once fenced in to prevent wildlife from destroying them and grass was diligently removed from around the plants.
Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) have been growing in Eurasia for some 30 million years. These flowering herbaceous perennials and biennials are part of the family Asteraceae (Compositae). This family consists of a wide range of flowering plants such as asters, daisies and sunflowers.
Dandelions are perhaps the most successful plants worldwide. They have an amazing ability to adapt and survive. If you cut your lawn low to rid yourself of dandelions, they will just grow closer to the ground. When their habitat is disturbed they will produce more seeds than they do normally. Each flower can produce between 50 to 175 seeds, and in one season a single plant can produce between 2000 and 5000 seeds! They are hardy plants and will be some of the first plants to populate disturbed ground or appear after a wildfire.
The seeds are dispersed by the wind and can travel up to eight kilometres. Dandelions seeds do not require pollination to be viable nor do they require cold to activate germination. In fact, the seeds can go dormant for years. One study discovered nine year old seeds that were still viable!
The dandelion is a prime example of how introducing an alien species into a new ecosystem can go awry. It did not take long for those first plants to jump the garden fence and take over the surrounding lands, spreading across the continent.
There is a positive side to these maligned weeds. Not only are they edible, they are a veritable super-food, rich in fiber and filled with essential minerals such as potassium, folic acid and magnesium. Dandelions have more
iron than spinach and more Vitamin A than carrots. A half cup of dandelions contains more calcium than a glass of milk and 55 mg of leaves have 535 per cent of your daily vitamin K intake.
The leaves are used for salads and cooked in soups or as greens similar to the way spinach is used. With a slightly bitter flavour that intensifies as the plant ages, leaves are best enjoyed when they are young in the spring and early summer months. Sweet and crunchy, the flowers are edible too. They can be eaten raw, breaded and fried, or used for making tea, beer, wine or dyes. The long tap root that is so difficult to remove from the ground, can extend to a depth of 15 feet! Roots are an excellent root vegetable that when dried can be used to make a coffeelike drink. Before you go foraging, be careful to only pick plants that have not been exposed to chemicals or are located near roadsides.
This essential plant has been used extensively for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. Dandelions are diuretics, which is how they received their name pissenlit or “pee the bed”. The leaves are used to relieve constipation and give one the sense of feeling full (great for dieters). They can be used to cleanse the body from toxins, and contain essential minerals like folic acid and magnesium.
Most recently dandelions are being trialled to create rubber products such as tires; the research is ongoing. So while they are certainly not a favoured plant, they are useful.
Growing and growing
Today dandelions are so proliferous that they can blanket entire lawns choking out the grass and slowing the growth of garden plants. People have been applying herbicides such as Roundup to destroy this unsightly weed for years. While this herbicide or similar products are still in use in some communities, municipalities and provinces across the country are banning the use of these dangerous chemicals for cosmetic purposes (your lawn and garden). This means that the plants are left largely to their own devices and spread farther.
While this is upsetting to many, dandelions are a welcome sight for pollinators. The pesky yellow flowers are some of the first spring blooms, providing much needed sustenance after a long winter. Maybe instead of spraying this year, remove your chemical free dandelions and use them for dinner? It's just a thought.
Dandelions have one of the longest flowering seasons of any plant and are often one of the first flowers of spring.
Each dandelion flower can produce anywhere between 50 and 175 seeds.
Dandelion leaves make excellent salads and taste great in stirfrys.
Dandelions are said to resemble the three planetary bodies. Yellow flowers represent the sun, the fluffy white seed heads the moon, and the seeds the stars in the sky.
The name dandelion is taken from the French word “dent de lion” meaning lion’s tooth, referring to the coarselytoothed leaves.
Dandelion flowers close up at night.