Dandelions: The politics of the weed we hate to love

By Lynette L. Walther | Jun 11, 2020
Photos by: Lynette L. Walther Dandelions have long tap roots which make them difficult to pull. The dried roots have been used to brew spring tonics.

Dandelions have been getting some really great press of late. Any political candidate should take notice of the sugarcoating this common weed gets. I suppose if dandelions were fussy or difficult to grow, we’d be falling all over each other (Well, okay we wouldn’t be doing that now, given social distancing and all) to acquire new cultivars of this brilliant yellow flower that is one of the first things to bloom in the spring.

Yes, cultivars with exuberant flowers do exist, and are popular in some places. Nevertheless, dandelions are all too easy to grow. We don’t even have to plant them. They do all the work for us. I expect there have been more dollars spent to root out dandelions from lawns than there are politicians elbowing each other for our vote.

But now we are being encouraged not just to be laissez-faire about these early flowering weeds, but to appreciate and give them their head for the sake of pollinators like honeybees, butterflies and moths.

If they were the only thing in blooming early in my landscape, I might acquiesce. But there are plenty of pollinating plants that populate my garden and lawn.

To be honest, I’ve never really seen bees prefer the dandelions to my cultured or other wild flowering plants. Though I will allow that I have not done a scientific study of the situation. My "lawn" is no monochromatic wasteland of just grass, but rather a bipartisan mix of all those things wild and cultivated blooming alongside the dandelions.

There’s the pulmonaria (lungwort), Uvularia grandiflora (greater bellwort), spring-flowering bulbs galore, Anemone nemorosa (tiny yellow wood anenome), a naturalized pink-flowering Corydalis, white and purple violets ground-ivy, gill-over-the-ground or creeping charlie, mitosis (forget-me-nots), Dutch clover and more.

You see where I am going with this? Yeah, I pull dandelions, and am not ashamed to admit it. I know this is probably putting myself in a quandary of political un-correctness with the pollinator people. But no one is perfect.

You won’t find me "dandelion shaming" anyone who chooses to do the same, that is if they are pulling them, not inundating them with a bath of toxic chemicals and herbicides that eliminate anything other than grass. After vetoing them, the dandelions from my tiny lawn go into my compost pile to decompose and provide nutrients for all those other spring-flowering plants I allow to flourish.

Pulling dandelions is notoriously difficult, so I have a handy tool which extracts them easily without bending over. Then I can "shoot" the plant — root and all — into a bucket.

If you don’t have an abundance of early spring flowers like I do, you might want consider letting those dandelions run amok in your lawn. That’s exactly what they will do, often crowding out grass, even other weeds. In truth they can be rather the thug, which is why I pull them to allow other wildflowers to grow. They self-seed and grow with a truly wild abandon, though they are not native plants.

Internet fact: "Common dandelion is an introduced plant in North America. In the mid-1600s, European settlers brought the common dandelion (scientific name, Taraxacum officinale) to eastern America and cultivated it in their gardens for food and medicine. Since then it has spread across the continent as a weed."

As a food source, dandelions provide minerals like iron, calcium, magnesium and potassium — making them a popular early leafy green for hungry colonists and dandelion aficionados to this day. Their foliage is full of antioxidants, and are reputed to help build immune systems.

Other benefits claimed they can help people lose weight, perhaps even kill cancer cells. A spring-time tonic tea of the dried roots is said to support bile secretion, promote healthy digestion and fight constipation. Other possible uses include skincare treatments and healthy bone support. We’ve all heard of dandelion wine, though I wonder how many of us have actually tasted any — let alone made it.

Of course, there is always the “wish potential” of those puffy seed heads. It’s easy to see why these humble weeds have their defenders.

But appreciation of dandelions does not necessarily extend to farmers and ranchers. As weeds go dandelions actually cause quite a bit of damage to horticultural crops and when dandelions get into grass, they can delay hay production because of their high water content.

But for the home gardener this is a non issue. Knowing the facts about dandelions and how they impact your environment however, is always a good place to start when it comes to informed decisions. Dandelions — love ‘em or hate ‘em — it’s your vote, your call, even though your ballot in this issue will be no secret if those dandy yellow blooms (or puffy white seed heads) dot your lawn — or not.

Lynette L. Walther is the GardenComm Gold medal winner for writing and a five-time recipient of the GardenComm Silver Medal of Achievement and the National Garden Bureau’s Exemplary Journalism Award. Her gardens are in Camden.

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