In defense of the dandelion

goinggreenIt’s been called a lot of things: Priest’s Crown, Irish Daisy, Swine’s Snout, Milk Witch and Peasant’s Cloak, to name a few. But regardless of its name, the dandelion is a plant almost everyone knows. This alone makes it special. It’s been said that the average American recognizes thousands of logos for commercial products, yet recognizes fewer than five plants that grow in her/his area. Dandelions are certainly one of those few plants.

But being known doesn’t mean you are popular. I once saw a graphic picture of a dandelion that was downright scary. Fang-like projections, a threatening posture, claws protruding from foliage… a very dangerous plant?! The title read: “public enemy number one!” The ad appeared in a Peoria paper many years ago. It was so over-the-top I pinned it on my bulletin board as a reminder of the efforts to influence attitudes.

This spring I received a promotional mailing from a chemical applicator with one of those nice sounding names… implying green, lush, healthy, take a walk with no shoes on, verdant lawn. For a ‘reasonable’ fee they are offering to rid my lawn of dandelions… in fact anything that isn’t grass. They want me to be aware that broad leaf plants are a problem… indeed they are “noxious.” To have a perfect lawn, I need to banish them. Lawn care companies go to great lengths to convince potential customers to buy their products to kill detested non-grass lawn intruders to create smooth, barren grass monocultures, which are supposed to be desirable.

Of course they don’t mention the collateral damage. Poisons don’t know when to quit.  The Agent Orange component (2-4-D) they apply is considered an endocrine disruptor, is carcinogenic, will make lawn toxic to children, pets, and wildlife, will travel indoors on shoes and sully carpeting and it lasts indefinitely.

Let’s take a closer look at the dandelion… the supposed “public enemy number one.”  This familiar plant’s ‘genus’ name is “Taraxacum,” which is a mix of two very unlike and interesting words. The first part comes from a Greek word, “taraxos,” meaning “disorder.” The second part from the Greek, “akos,” means “remedy.” The species name “officinale,” is from Latin and refers to its use as “medicine.”

Dandelions very likely were brought to America on the Mayflower, not hidden in livestock feed, but rather as medicinal and garden plants. They have been used for both food and medicine for thousands of years.

Up until the 1800s people would pull grass out of their lawns to make room for dandelions and other useful plants. In many places, dandelion leaves are a preferred salad green, that are more nutritious than most of the vegetables in your garden. They aid in digestion and promote health. The younger leaves are preferred. Make certain the foliage hasn’t been sprayed with poison, or anointed by a neighborhood dog.

These little flowers are actually good for your lawn. They loosen dense soils and cycle nutrients to the surface with their deep roots, fertilizing the lawn (for free).

Dandelions are very hardy pioneering plants that can survive in harsh conditions of disturbance. By their very presence, they reduce severity and help other plants to succeed. The dandelion is the only flower that has represented the three celestial bodies of the sun, moon and stars. The yellow flower resembles the sun, the puff ball resembles the moon and the dispersing seeds resemble the stars.

They are a barometer of environmental quality. For example, when our son and daughter were young, we’d often take them to parks, Zoos, Botanical Gardens, and Nature Centers. If we didn’t see dandelions (or clover), there was a very good chance the broad leaf herbicide, 2-4-D, was being sprayed over the lawn to promote a grass monoculture. We would simply go elsewhere rather than subject our kids to the unnecessary risk of exposure to toxic chemicals. And to think this was the same plant we used to offer to one another (as kids) to smell, and then would pop it into each other’s faces with a flick of the thumb. Not the classiest form of humor, but at least (back then) there was no need to worry that the “joke” was literally toxic. Times have changed.

Dandelions are one of the few non-native plants that have become important to native insects as a food source, thereby earning their keep. The vast majority of exotic plants provide little food value to native fauna.

Perhaps dandelions are disliked because they don’t recognize human “dominion” over everything. They represent both the “wild,” and the “tame,” in a literal sense. Even though they have long been propagated in gardens, they also thrive in the wild. “Wild” comes from “willed,” implying that it doesn’t readily submit to man’s will. It pretty much grows wherever there is space available. Generally this implies disturbed areas, or places where they may not be welcome. They are very good at growing in sparse conditions, such as cracks in a sidewalk. Dandelions have one of the longest flowering seasons of any plant. Seeds are often carried as many as five miles from their origin! This familiar garden plant is now found around the entire globe.

The advertisement that identified the dandelion as “public enemy number one,” is being disingenuous. Dandelions could be wrongly blamed for polluting more waters than just about any other plant. Every year Americans spend millions on lawn pesticides to have

uniform lawns of non-native grasses. We use 30% of the country’s water supply to keep them green. We are the problem.

We humans are clever enough to invent poisons that will kill broad leaf plants… but not wise enough to know that unnecessary use of toxins will cause extensive and unpredictable collateral damage downstream. This is the real “public enemy number one.”

As Henry David Thoreau said: “What are we to think of the doctor whose cures are worse than the ills he treats?”

Dale Goodner

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