Columns, In the Garden

Are Dandelions Foe or Friend?

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photo by Deborah J. Benoit
While most people think of dandelions as a weed, they have many benefits, including as an early nectar source for bees and other insects as well as a good source of Vitamin C, beta carotene and other important vitamins and minerals when consumed in salads, tea or other foods and drink.

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. – It’s that time of year again. Sunny yellow blossoms pop up all over the landscape, bringing smiles to children’s faces and frowns to those who favor manicured lawns. Love ‘em, hate ‘em or don’t pay them much attention, there’s a lot to be said about dandelions (Taraxacum officianale).

Its common name comes from the French “dent de lion,” meaning lion’s teeth, a reference to the appearance of its leaves. Native to Eurasia, dandelions were introduced to North America in the 1600s by colonists who grew them for medicine and food.

Dandelions return year after year, producing the familiar yellow flowers from spring into summer. Popular advice says to let them continue to grow in spring as an early nectar source. Indeed, if there’s little else in bloom in the area, dandelions will provide a welcome food source for bees and other insects, and their seeds will provide food as well as nesting material for birds.

Historically, people have consumed dandelions as both food and drink. The tender young leaves or a sprinkling of petals make a tasty addition to salads. More mature leaves can be eaten like spinach, boiled or steamed.

You’ve probably heard of dandelion wine, but did you know roasted dandelion root can be steeped and served as a coffee substitute? The roots, leaves and flowers are edible and can be used to brew an herbal tea. You can find more information at go.uvm.edu/dandelions.

A word of caution: If nibbling on a dandelion flower, making a salad with dandelion leaves or brewing a cup of dandelion tea, harvest only from areas that are free of contaminants, such as road salts, pesticides or lawn treatments, be sure to rinse them well and be certain to positively identify the plant.

Dandelions contain Vitamin C and beta carotene (an antioxidant that the body converts to Vitamin A) and other important vitamins and minerals. They’ve historically played a part in folk medicine, and some people have used dandelions as health remedies. However, always consult with a doctor before trying any such remedy.

Once their flowers pass, dandelions produce a round head of seeds adorned with white fluff that flies easily on the breeze or a puff of breath. Those seed heads have amused children of all ages, but if concerned about a dandelion invasion, be sure to remove the flowers before they go to seed or there may be a field of dandelions in bloom next spring.

There are a number of ways to deal with unwanted dandelions in the garden. They have a long taproot, so trying to pull them by hand can be a chore. If you don’t remove the entire root, the plant can grow back.

Fortunately, there are a variety of tools that work well to remove dandelions. They include specialty hand weeders and long-handled, clawed weeders, which remove dandelions with a simple twist.

If opting to use a herbicide for removal, be sure to select one intended for dandelions and apply according to the label’s directions.

If a pristine, monoculture carpet of green is not needed for the lawn, let dandelions grow and simply mow them with the grass. Why? Because those long taproots that make them so difficult to remove benefit your lawn by aerating compacted soil.

 The next time seeing a dandelion’s yellow flower, remember, it’s so much more than just a weed.

Deborah J. Benoit is a UVM Extension Master Gardener from North Adams, Mass., who is part of the Bennington County Chapter.

Deborah J. Benoit

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