You’ve heard that famous quote from Benjamin Franklin about the certainty of death and taxes? Knowing that he dabbled in botany along with other scientific pursuits, I’ll bet if he were alive today, he would add dandelions to that list. Taraxacum officinale, better known as the common dandelion, was already taking hold in America by the time he uttered those words.
You can be sure winter is truly over once you see their sunny yellow heads popping up in lawns around your neighborhood. Some people will groan at the sight, but I find them kind of cheerful. In a society suffering from plant blindness, they are one of a handful of plants that almost everyone can identify, and yet millions are spent on ridding them from our yards.
Maybe it’s time to think better of the plucky little flower. Dandelions are an important first source of nectar for pollinators, most notably for our native bumblebees that emerge in early spring, hungry for food to fuel their nesting and reproductive needs. Minnesota gardeners are understandably shy about planting for spring blooms; with late freezes and fickle weather patterns it’s risky business. Dandelions help fill this void, and they’re free.
The dandelion’s medicinal powers were well known as far back as ancient Rome; however the name comes from the French for lion’s tooth, inspired by the serrated leaves. It was also known as pis-en-lit, literally “wet the bed,” due to its diuretic qualities as a spring tonic.
The seeds found their way to the New World in pockets and pants cuffs. For colonists in a strange new land, the familiar dandelion was like an apothecary all in one plant — the leaf, flower and root used to treat a litany of ailments afflicting the heart, liver and digestive system.
Today the bitter “weed” is being rediscovered as a tasty and healthful addition to our meals. It contains fiber, vitamin C and K, as well as folate and other minerals. Just like kale or arugula, you can sauté the leaves in olive oil with a little garlic, maybe some onions, and a few chili flakes. It’s a nice counterpoint to rich meat dishes. Or you can toss a few raw leaves in salads or soups. Be sure to harvest the newer tender leaves for the best taste and texture. Avoid plants that may have been sprayed with herbicide.
Dandelion wine isn’t just a song title; it’s a real thing. My husband loves to tell the story of how as a child he collected buckets of the blossoms for a pair of elderly winemaking ladies who lived nearby.
Still want to get rid of them?
It almost seems like dandelions tag along after human activity. They thrive in disturbed soil, like vacant city lots and overgrazed pastures. The seeds that blow from the puffy seed heads also find it easy to lodge in lawns where abundant water and fertilizer helps them grow big and strong. They have no negative impact on the health of lawns; in reality they do some good by aerating the soil and drawing up nutrients with their long taproots. The only damage done is when people eradicate them with herbicides that end up in our lakes and rivers. Dandelion control depends upon whether you have a whole field of them or just a few, but for most homeowners, there are ways to reduce their numbers without doing environmental harm.
Strategies for spring
The first method is old-fashioned hand-pulling, made easier right after a rain. Use an aptly named dandelion fork designed for the task, and feel that satisfying pop when the notched blade grabs and lifts the tenacious taproot. Try to remove most of the root — otherwise they can regenerate.
Applications of corn gluten supposedly inhibit the germination of dandelion seeds. Studies are divided on its effectiveness. Some say that it works better in the Midwest than other parts of the country. If you go for it, timing is critical; the right moment is when you see the bright yellow forsythia blooming. Otherwise, the nutrients in the corn gluten will actually feed the newly emerging weeds. Apply when no rain is forecast for several days, and spray with a light mist to set the material.
To help pollinators a bit, delay mowing until the first round of flowers are ready to set seed, then mow before they can form those charming “clocks.” Provide competition for dandelion seeds by mowing higher; the lusher lawn will shade out some seeds before they germinate.
Strategies for summer
Keep pulling — any dandelions left will return the following year. Precise spot-spraying with a broadleaf weed killer (doesn’t harm grass) at this time of year when the plant is actively growing will pull the herbicide down into the root and destroy it. When using glyphosate (Roundup) care has to be taken not to harm surrounding plants; avoid windy days for this reason.
Master Gardener Rhonda Fleming Hayes is a Minneapolis-based writer who blogs at thegardenbuzz.com. She is the author of “Pollinator-Friendly Gardening: Gardening for Bees, Butterflies and Other Pollinators,” available at Amazon.com.