That golden bane of perfect green lawns may soon earn a place of prominence in the horticultural world. Sure, there are gardeners who occasionally harvest dandelion greens for salads or make batches of homemade dandelion wine, but the plant remains an all-too-common weed despised by most suburban homeowners.
That may all change if researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany have any say. They’ve discovered how to make lemonade out of lemons, if you will, by harvesting dandelion latex (that white sticky stuff in dandelion stems) to make rubber. The idea isn’t new. During World War II, the Allies experimented with all sorts of alternatives to latex from rubber trees because plantations in Southeast Asia had fallen under control of the Japanese. But dandelion rubber never took off, partly because dandelion latex polymerizes (sets up) when it hits the air. The German researchers have been able to turn off the enzymes that cause polymerization, and in the process, increase dandelion latex yields by 500 percent. Time magazine called it one of the 50 best inventions of 2009.
Healthy rubber trees still produce a lot more latex than a dandelion plant, but a serious fungus is threatening to wipe out commercial rubber production from trees. The disease has already eliminated widespread rubber tree cultivation in South America, and is threatening to do so in Southeast Asia.
Rubber from natural latex is important in making car tires elastic enough to inflate. If latex from rubber trees becomes unavailable, that from dandelions may take its place. Another bonus of dandelion latex–it appears to be less allergenic than latex from rubber trees.
So, next spring if your neighbors complain about the crop of dandelions in your front yard, just let them know that you’re on the cutting edge of technology, and have started your very own dandelion latex plantation.