7 Reasons Why I Appreciate the Oft-Dreaded Dandelion
I have plenty of good things to say about the weed America loves to hate. Here's why.
Dandelions and I have a special bond. They helped me earn my first Sting-Ray bike. That was the deal I struck with my father—weed the entire large, front lawn by hand in exchange for a shiny new banana-seat bike with Easy Rider handlebars.
Frankly, the dandelions were a piece of cake to remove. You could spot them easily and extract them in a snap with a garden weeder, which is kind of like a screwdriver with an oversized V-shaped head. It was the creeping veronica and crabgrass that caused me the most grief—I don’t have anything good to say about them. But I do have plenty of good to say about dandelions.
Apparently, I’m not the only one with a soft spot: Dandelions were intentionally brought to America by European settlers in the 17th century—some say for medicinal purposes, others because they reminded settlers of the Old World. In either case, it was a conscious decision. Even the name points to its European roots, which comes from the French term “dent de lion,” meaning “tooth of the lion,” and refers to the species' deeply toothed leaf.
Related: How to Weed Your Garden
With cottony seeds that travel far distances on the wind, this herbaceous perennial soon escaped cultivation and became something resembling a pest to people who didn’t get to know them. Dandelions are kind of like that misunderstood friend you have. Someone says something negative about them and you feel compelled to reply with a “yeah, but...” response. So if you ask me whether dandelions can be a pest, I’ll have to reply, “Yeah, but they can be beneficial too.” Here's why.
Benefits of Dandelions
Those yellow flowers are a delightful treat after a gray and dull winter. If you’ve ever seen a dandelion lawn in full bloom, it’s quite attractive. Yeah, it looks like the dickens a few weeks later when it goes to seed—but that just means more of those bright blooms later.
C’mon, what kid didn’t like mashing the yellow flowers into someone’s face to leave a yellow stain on their cheek? Or blowing seed heads into the air? It’s a great way to entertain a toddler, too. (Nature sure is devious in the way it disperses seeds effectively—even stooping to kids’ games.)
Dandelion greens add a bitter, peppery flavor to salads and soups. The bitterness takes a little getting used to, which is why you might think about adding dandelion greens in small amounts to your salad. You can also cook the greens to make them less bitter. In any event, always harvest juvenile plants, which are less bitter. It goes without saying that you don’t want to harvest dandelions from lawns that have been treated with herbicides or pesticides.
Dandelion greens are low in calories and loaded with vitamins and nutrients. Two of those nutrients—lutein and zeaxanthin—play a role in healthy eyesight. Dandelion greens also contain Vitamin A, which is important to eyesight and supports the growth of new blood cells, and Vitamin K, which regulates the formation of blood clots and maintains healthy bones. Dandelion greens also provide Vitamin C and calcium.
Dandelion roots and leaves are dried and used to make a tea, which is said to help detoxify the liver, improve digestion and aid weight loss. Dandelion’s use as a medicinal herb goes back to 900 AD, and recent research suggests it may hold promise in fighting cancer. (Of course, always consult your doctor before beginning any kind of medicinal regimen.)
Small birds eat the seeds and honeybees get nectar from the flowers. Allowed to fully develop, taproots can penetrate hardpan, a layer of compacted soil, to extract calcium from the subsoil. In addition, dandelions are among the first weeds to colonize disturbed land. That may sound bad, but remember, nature abhors bare ground. So-called weeds fight erosion.
They’re a Kick
Well, so I’m told. Truthfully, I’ve never had dandelion wine but people say it’s dandy. It’s made by fermenting a dandelion tea with yeast, sugar, and citrus.
Ways to Use Dandelion Greens
I’m all for sneaking my vegetables into foods whenever possible. That’s why I like to make stews and soups—you can easily slip in nutritious vegetables. Dandelion greens are no different. Cut up the leaves and add them to other salad greens. Use in a sandwich or wrap. Or sauté dandelion greens in a broth with onions and garlic.
How to Grow Dandelions
You’re kidding, right? They’re indestructible. They don’t need any help! True, which is why you need to keep them from becoming a nuisance. Dandelions are perennials and the thick taproots can penetrate 10 to 15 feet into the ground. (I’m thinking my dandelion fork wouldn’t work on those.) The point is, you don’t want to accidentally introduce them to other parts of your garden.
My suggestion would be to grow them in big barrels in full sun. Clip the flower stems regularly so they can’t go to seed. And harvest leaves when they are still small. Although they really don’t need fertilizer, you could give them a shot of water-soluble plant food once a month to encourage more leaf growth.
Deciding to keep dandelions in your landscape can be a controversial decision, but dandelions can be beneficial to you and your yard. Whether you use dandelions to fight erosion or you love to add them to your salad, there are plenty of dandelions to go around. So pause a moment before you destroy them. They have a variety of ecological uses and their nutrients can even improve your health.