The Glorious Dandelion: A Most Useful Herb

To most people, the dandelion is a weed that needs to be dug up out of their yard and totally destroyed, but should we take another look at that pretty yellow flower? It’s not always been despised.  In fact, in the past, people vied for the best dandelion yard, pulling grass up so their yard would be a sea of yellow. To this day, there are a number of dandelion societies, the foremost is the Dandelion Appreciation Society.

Breeding of dandelions for different colors and leaf sizes has been going on for centuries in Japan. Dandelion has many culinary uses as well as medicinal. The Japanese are particular about the variety of dandelion they eat. These recipes use stems, leaves, flowers, and roots, some not all at once. You could substitute your garden variety, as long as you haven’t sprayed with any chemicals, and still get a tasty treat.

Dandelion has been cultivated all over the world and considered a household necessity for all manner of ailments, not to mention its culinary value.  It’s only been in the 20th century we, in the West, have considered dandelion a weed to be rid of at all costs.   

Let’s take a look at some of the reasons you may want to leave those dandelions in your yard.

Dandelions for Human Health

Dandelions have been documented as medicinal plants since ancient Egypt. Dandelion was carried to all parts of the world by travelers because it seemed to keep people from getting scurvy, a nutrient-deficient disease.  From all accounts, the dandelion probably came to the New World on the Mayflower, tucked away in medicine chests.

“To this day, herbalists hail the dandelion as the perfect plant medicine: it is a gentle diuretic that provides nutrients and helps the digestive system function at peak efficiency” (Sanchex, Anita, The Teeth of the Lion)

The dandelion plant is a rich source of nutrients. It has more Vitamin A than spinach and more Vitamin C than a tomato. It also contains iron, calcium, and potassium. The greens are rich in vitamins A, B, C, E, and K. Dandelions are a “superfood” and all parts can be eaten.

Use dandelion root either fresh or dried. If drying the root, clean thoroughly (do not peel), and cut into small pieces so it dries evenly. When dry it can be ground for a decaf coffee substitute or tea. Make your own!  In the store ground dandelion root for coffee goes for $39.03 a pound (at Walmart!). Forty tea bags will cost you $35.07 at that same store. 

Raw honey infused with dandelion flowers, dandelion tea, baby leaves in salads or larger leaves cooked like spinach, and Traditional Scandinavian Dandelion Syrup are just a few of the food products that will increase your health.

The most recent “Chinese Pharmacopoeia” lists multiple varieties of dandelion as healing herbs. The one we are most familiar with Taraxacum spp (common dandelion), as well as T. mongolicum Hand-Mazz (perennial herb dandelion), and T. sinicum Kitag (Alkaline dandelion), each with specific healing properties. Eastern medicine has utilized dandelion for medicinal purposes for millennia.  Dandelion has shown to have both anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory effects.

Dandelions for Soil Health

While dandelions are healthy for humans, they are also good for the soil and your lawn. Maybe you'd prefer not having pretty yellow flowers in your lawn, but before you get out the herbicide consider the benefits they bring.  Some grasses have a shallow root system, whereas a dandelion root can reach 15 feet into the soil. That root is bringing up needed nutrients your grassroots may not be able to reach.  Dandelions bring up calcium, iron, and potassium from deep in the earth.  When the leaves die, they give those nutrients back to the topsoil. Your dandelions are fertilizing the grass.  When you mow the grass, and dandelions, the root stays alive and sends up more shoots. 

Even if you feel compelled to dig up the dandelions it is really a herculean task. It only takes one inch of root left in the ground to sprout a new plant.  How often do you get ALL the root of a dandelion when you dig? Are you willing to make holes all over your lawn? DEEP holes?

And what if you decide to pave over that area or spread landscape fabric and lots of gravel to avoid maintenance? Never fear, dandelion leaves can shove through gravel, any crack in cement, and any soft spot in asphalt.  All the time they’re searching for light they’re enriching the soil you’ve tried to obliterate. Dandelions will always win.

Dandelions for Wildlife 

If you enjoy watching birds you need to have dandelions in your yard. The tiny little seeds are favorites for chipping sparrows, goldfinches, and quail to name a few.  Those tiny seeds are also eaten by wild turkey, your chickens (if you raise chickens), and chipmunks.  The seeds and foliage are eaten by at least 33 species of wildlife.

The next time you see deer in your yard get out the binoculars, you may think they’re nibbling on your lawn but they much prefer dandelion leaves to grass. Rabbits are also very fond of dandelion greens.  The nutrients that would have made it onto your plate make for some very healthy wildlife.

Dandelions for Pollinators

One of the most important reasons, in my book, to leave dandelions in your yard is to give pollinators nectar. Dandelions are one of the first flowers to bloom, and in a warm spell that means they are the only source of food for honeybees and other pollinators. Dandelions are a member of the Asteraceae family (Asters), a dandelion head is not one flower but a multitude of blossoms. Each petal is actually a flower, with nectar and pollen for pollinators to feast on.

The use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers to keep your lawn healthy and free of pests and weeds, such as dandelions, kills not only the dandelion (partially, remember it only takes an inch of dandelion root to create a new plant) but poisons pollinators, birds, and wildlife. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has estimated there are 30 million acres of lawn in the United States. How many of those lawns are regularly sprayed with herbicides to kill dandelions? My guesstimate is most are, and then nitrogen fertilizers are used to green up the grass.

According to the EPA “…the use of lawn chemicals accounts for the majority of wildlife poisonings reported to the Environmental Protection Agency. Lawn chemicals can be absorbed through the skin, swallowed, or inhaled. During application, lawn chemicals can drift and settle on ponds, laundry, toys, pools, and furniture.” (https://cfpub.epa.gov/npstbx/files/marc_lawnchemicals.pdf)

Herbicides are not the best option for trying to keep dandelions out of your lawn. And having them in your lawn means you are feeding wildlife, pollinators, and yourself.  Is there really a good reason to remove them?  If you don’t like those perky yellow flowers how about mowing them down? Leave the root to accumulate more nutrients for your grass.

It’s not a good bet that even the strongest systemic herbicide will kill the entire dandelion plant (all 15 foot of root underground). If you’ve first tried to get rid of that dandelion by digging it up, that means there is a bit of root left in the soil. If you happened to dig and CUT the root now you have two pieces of root in the soil. The systemic may only get one, the other will live to bloom another day.

In the meantime, you’ve spread poison on an area your children and pets play in. Is it worth it?

Dandelions for Commercial Farming

As a parent you’re more aware of child safety; as a consumer you’re becoming more aware of the nutritional value of foods. The market for dandelion greens is emerging in the United States. That market has always existed in Asia.  Commercial growers in North America usually grow dandelions for the greens.

The roots of a transplanted dandelion spread out and do not make a long tap root.  They’re planted in rows a distance apart so weeding is easier. Imagine, weeding dandelions!

When the plant isn’t expending as much energy creating a long tap root it spends more time making larger leaves and the grower profits.  When the leaves start to dwindle the whole plant is cut to the ground and allowed to start all over again.

As this market becomes greater more effort in the Western world will be placed on breeding. Today, most of the large leafed dandelions have come from Asian breeding programs.

Dandelions aren’t being grown just for culinary and medicinal purposes.  That white sap in the root of dandelions that leaves a brown spot on your skin – that’s a form of latex. Continental Tire has produced and tested its first tires from dandelion-derived rubber. 

They aren’t using your front yard variety of dandelion but a specific Russian species. The roots contain the natural rubber latex. The supply of rubber from dandelions will be easier to control (than from a rubber tree plantation) and dandelions will grow anywhere.  Dr. Carla Racker, of Continental’s research team says “…in agricultural terms, dandelions are an undemanding plant, growing in moderate climates, even in the northern hemisphere. This means that rubber production is conceivable near our tire factories…”  So, how close are they to making tires from dandelion rubber? They are on target to make 100% of their tire tread out of dandelion – available to the public in 5 to 10 years. Stay tuned.

Dandelions for Fun

It’s fun to think of dandelion rubber. Dandelions have been fun for kids for, well---forever. As kids we’ve all enjoyed blowing on the dandelion puff and watching the little parachutes go flying.  We were pretty effective seed distributors. Probably better than any wildlife, who mostly ate the seeds. Throughout time all kinds of games have been played with dandelions.

Our favorite was the game of putting a dandelion under a friend’s chin and asking if they liked butter, the answer always had to be yes because the yellow flower left a nice golden glow under the chin. If the answer was no, we would smear the dandelion under our friend’s chin and say “now you do!” as we ran away. 

There were many bracelets and necklaces made with the stems. If a parent was out to help, they made a slit near the end of the stem, just big enough to slide another stem through. We could make golden crowns with the flowers attached.  Dandelions were, and still are, no end of fun.

 At the end of play we could always pick a bunch of pretty yellow dandelions for mom because she liked flowers. The dandelions would always wilt even in water; they don’t take kindly to picking. But almost all parents make exceptions to flower picking when it comes to dandelions and love that their kids thought to bring them something pretty. Besides, they’ll come back up from the root.

This video may make you see dandelions in a new light. Enjoy! 

 

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