There aren’t many plants that people argue about but dandelions are one of them. This very successful, and pretty, plant may not be welcome in lawns but it isn’t as evil as we sometimes think.
Dandelions are related to daisies and other members of the aster or composite family. If you look closely at a blossom, you can see that it is made up of dozens of individual flowers or florets.
Many insects, including honey bees, visit dandelion flowers to gather nectar and pollen. I have watched many different butterflies stop at a patch of dandelions and, if you look closely, you can also find small beetles and flies.
Dandelions get blamed for spring allergies but most folks with pollen allergies are reacting to the wind blown pollen from spruce and pine trees which fills the air at the time that dandelions are in bloom. Dandelions depend on bees for pollination and their pollen grains are too large to be spread on the wind.
Children the world over know that dandelion seeds will sail on a breath of air but have you ever stopped to look closely at one of the seeds. Each seed has its own parachute and the little packets can ride the wind for miles.
Dandelion flowers and seeds are also a favourite food for chipmunks and ground squirrels. It is neat to watch a chipmunk carefully take apart a dandelion head to harvest the seeds. Both grizzly and black bears also search out dandelion patches when they emerge from hibernation.
Native to Europe and northern Asia, dandelions were likely introduced to North America in the 1600s when settlers brought over their garden crops. The leaves can be used in salads, the flowers turned into wine, and the roots boiled as a coffee substitute. The roots were, and still are, used medicinally, especially as a diuretic.
Unlike some invasive plants that cause serious issues in native habitat, dandelions don’t do as well in healthy forests and grasslands. They prefer disturbed areas where they can more easily compete with lawns, crops and other weedy species.
Dandelions have a competitive advantage because they can adapt to a wide variety of growing conditions. The same plant will be short if growing on a manicured lawn or tall if growing on the edge of the woods. The flowers also don’t need to be pollinated to set seeds and the seeds will develop even if the flower is cut. If you want to slow the spread of dandelions in your lawn then it helps to clean-up beheaded flowers after mowing.
You may have heard the saying that “weeds are just wildflowers growing in the wrong place” and dandelions are a classic example of such a misplaced plant. Dandelions aren’t always loved but, whether we like it or not, they are here to stay.