The much maligned dandelion actually has a lot to offer. It has been vilified in our culture as the invader of lawn spaces, thrusting its dazzling yellow colour into an otherwise tranquil field of green. Homeowners pour millions of gallons of weed control chemicals into their lawns each year in a vain attempt to vanquish this foe. So what is it about dandelions that most homeowners hate so much?
There is a degree of old fashioned thinking of lawns as symbols of wealth and status. This historical memory seems to harken back to England in the 17th Century, when tightly controlled, expansive lawns revealed how much wealth an estate owner could spend on them. Before mechanical lawn mowers, many lawns were clipped by hand by teams of gardeners. The bigger the lawn, the wealthier the estate. This odd association of lawn and status extended to vast developments in suburban North America, making normal the idea that the landscape could be tamed and made uniform through labour, water, fertilizer, and weed control.
Carefully managed lawns have a tendency to compact the soil beneath them, which produces the ideal conditions for dandelions to take root. The dandelion’s clever method of seed dispersal allows its seeds to float on the wind for miles, and to settle smack-dab in the middle of a lawn. The stage is set for battle between man and nature…
Generally, we are talking about the Common Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, but Taraxacum is a fairly large genus of plants, and there can be complex genetic diversity within a single species. Common Dandelions, in times when pollinators are scarce, are self-fertile, and can produce clones (genetically identical copies) of themselves. Between this ability and their tendency to colonize areas of compacted soil, the genetics of a single population can be quite varied. In many cases, numerous subspecies and micro-species have been identified.
Dandelions belong to the Aster family, Asteraceae. Like all members of this family, their flowers are actually composites, made up of hundreds of individual florets. Each floret has both male and female parts – the stamen produces pollen, and the stigma receives pollen in order to fertilize the ovary and produce a single seed. The florets open in a ring around the outside of the flower head. As they are fertilized the stigmas curl up, and the pistils fold backward, providing room for new sets of florets to open from the centre. The photo above shows a newly opened flower head, with many unopened florets clustered at the centre, waiting their turn.
This photo shows a fully opened flower head, with new stigmas extending outward, and fertilized stigmas curled up. This is exactly the same structure as the flower head of a sunflower. A fully mature sunflower head can push itself into a convex (dome-like) shape as its maturing seeds grow and push outward.
It’s not surprising that the densely packed group of florets, each producing a single seed, results in the familiar dandelion seed head. These can contain up to 172 seeds, but the plant blooms repeatedly through summer, and each plant can produce as many as 5,000 seeds in a single year. A dandelion seed is the plant’s mature fruit, known as a cypsela to botanists, and its parachute-like structure is known as a pappus. The pappus develops as the calyx of each floret dries and matures, so it serves two important roles for the plant.
Dandelions are particularly generous producers of nectar, which makes them highly attractive to honeybees and many other pollinators. The nectary is located at the very base of each floret, so bees need to stretch the plants’ floral structures apart to access the energy-rich nectar. In the process, bees become liberally coated in pollen, which they carry on to the next flower head.
About 90% of honeybees are “nectar foragers.” They eat some nectar themselves, but return the bulk of it to the hive for communal use. Any pollen they collect as they groom themselves, is kind of inadvertent. The other (roughly) 10% of honeybees are specific “pollen foragers,” and play a more active role in returning pollen to the hive. These pollen foragers have a greater impact on pollination since they leave more of an imprint on each flower. They also tend to go from dandelion to dandelion to dandelion, rather than dandelion to cherry blossom to dandelion.
The florets of the dandelion above are just starting to open from the outside-in. Dandelion pollen is short on certain proteins that benefit bees, but their lavish supply of pollen and nectar (over a long period), is reward enough for most hives.
All parts of the dandelion plant are edible, and some are highly nutritious. It is closely related to the chicory family, and its leaves have an endive-like bitterness. Early spring growth is probably the most palatable, and the flower petals can be pulled and scattered over salads. The leaves are a rich source of iron and vitamins A, B1, B2, and C, with more calcium and iron than spinach. They can be eaten cooked or raw, in soups, salads, or smoothies. Dandelion flowers can be used to make wine and jam – and dye for textiles. Its roots can be dried and crushed and used (like those of chicory) as a caffeine-free coffee substitute. The milky latex that emerges when its leaves or stem are cut has been used as a mosquito repellent, and was contemplated as a source for tire manufacturing during the Second World War.
The dandelion is thought to have originated in Europe and Asia, but it is a common weed in most temperate parts of the world. Of its medicinal qualities, the English physician Culpeper wrote:
It is of an opening and cleansing quality, and therefore very effectual for the obstructions of the liver, gall and spleen, and the diseases that arise from them, as the jaundice, and hypochondriac; it openeth the passages of the urine both in young and old; powerfully cleanseth imposthumes and inward ulcers in the urinary passages, and by its drying and temperate quality doth afterwards heal them; for which purpose the decoction of the roots or leaves in white whine, or the leaves chopped as pot-herbs, with a few alisanders, and boiled in their broth, are very effectual. And whoever is drawing towards a consumption, or an evil disposition of the whole body, called cachexia, by the use hereof for some time together, shall find a wonderful help. It helpeth also to procure rest and sleep to bodies distempered by the heat of ague-fits, or otherwise. The distilled water is effectual to drink in pestilential fevers, and to wash the sores.
The dandelion’s place in the public imagination over so many centuries has resulted in some quite descriptive colloquial names. Its common name famously comes from the French dent de lion (lion’s tooth). The English called it lion’s tooth, but also milk-witch, puffball, blow-ball, Irish daisy, canker-wort, yellow gowan, swine’s-snout, white endive, monk’s-head and priest’s-crown. The plant has well documented diuretic properties, thus the folk name piss-a-bed, and the French pissenlit. In the north of Italy it is sometimes called pisacan (literally “dog pisses”), since the plant is often seen growing out of sidewalks.
Perhaps it’s this last reason that puts people off collecting dandelion flowers and greens from the wild. No wonder. This is also the reason why dandelion seeds continue to be ordered alongside beets and basil seeds. Cultivated dandelions, grown with care in a garden row, produce beautiful, tall foliage, and perfect, almost parsnip-like taproots. The flowers are easier to collect at the stage needed – unopened for wine, just-open for salads.
As organic gardeners we should testify to the dandelion’s utility. It feeds pollinators and it can feed us. It is a useful indicator plant of compacted soil. It is a perennial that deserves a spot in the permaculture garden. And it should be a welcome guest in our lawns, and as a harbinger of spring.
How to Grow Dandelions:
Direct sow from early March to early September. Optimal soil temperature for germination: 10-25°C (50-75°F). Seeds take 14-21 days to germinate. The flowering process begins 56 to 105 from sowing, and continues for the life of the plant.
Sow short rows every two weeks for a constant supply. Be careful not to plant more than you can use, as the flowers need to be controlled. Press seeds lightly into the soil’s surface and keep the seeded area moist until germination. Do not bury the seeds, as light helps to break dormancy. Thin seedlings to 15cm (6″) apart for full sized crowns. If you intend to harvest as baby greens, they can be planted 5cm (3″) apart.
Dandelions are perennial, so in theory, they can produce over a very long time. Preventing the flowers from going to seed is essential for obvious reasons — uncontrolled growth can result in them spreading as noxious weeds. For the best leaves, grow in rich, fertile soil with good drainage. A well cultivated dandelion plant is actually quite luxurious and attractive.
The youngest leaves have the mildest flavour and tender texture. Mature leaves need to be blanched or stir-fried. Bitterness in the leaves can be reduced by growing them in partial shade, or by placing a plastic or cardboard disc over the rosettes for a week prior to harvest. This is how some growers harvest endive, a close relative of the dandelion. For beer and wine making, harvest the flowers as soon as they open. Pull up whole plants at the end of the season and dry their roots for use as tea or dye.
Diseases & Pests
Dandelions are rarely the victim of pests or diseases, but they are loved by rabbits.