Dandelions by the millions pop up like magic in lawns, along roadsides, and just about anywhere else that sunlight reaches bare soil. They are probably the most recognized and widespread plants in the world.
A Eurasian native, dandelions reached North America as precious garden seeds brought across the ocean by our earliest immigrants. They began spreading across the continent before the Revolutionary War. For thousands of years people appreciated the dandelion’s culinary and medicinal properties. Its Latin name, Taraxacum officinale, means “official remedy for disorders.” Imagine living in Europe during the Dark Ages. Winters were cold and dark. Diets were monotonous and lacked vitamins. By late winter many people suffered severe vitamin deficiencies. They were weak, lethargic and vulnerable to fatal diseases. Then, with the first few warm days vitamin rich dandelions began growing. People ate them and vitamin deficiencies evaporated. This humble plant restored health. No wonder immigrants carried dandelion seeds across the ocean when they immigrated to the New World! How ironic that a plant that can do no harm to humans and once provided important food and medicine is today hated. If dandelions were finicky and needed special cultivation and care maybe homeowners would appreciate them! Children love bright yellow dandelion flowers and delight in blowing seeds off the puffy sphere that follows the bloom. Instead of persecuting dandelions perhaps we’d all be better off it we took a lesson from kids and just enjoyed them.
Why Dandelions Invade Lawns
In order to thrive in a lawn, dandelions need two conditions: a scrap of bare soil and sunshine. When meticulous homeowners attempt to create a monoculture lawn by mowing closely, removing lawn clippings, and aerating the soil they create perfect growing conditions for dandelions. Fluffy dandelion parachutes carry millions of dandelion seeds through the air which land nearly everywhere. If growing conditions are not good where the seed lands it won’t thrive. But if the seed has the good fortune to descend onto a closely cropped lawn, it will quickly sprout and flower to the consternation of the owner. They poison and dig out the dandies and mow the lawn to the nubbin, creating more perfect conditions for new seeds to sprout. Dandelions are probably the world’s best plant for the herbicide industry!
Reducing Dandelion Populations in an Ecological Lawn
A nonsprayed lawn is always likely to have a few dandelions, but the best to manage a lawn to reduce plant numbers is to keep the ground shady and avoid bare soil. Follow these easy steps:
- Avoid herbicides.
- Set the mower cutting depth high to allow grass to grow tall, shading the soil beneath. Mow as infrequently as possible. Leave clippings in place and never remove “thatch.”
- Avoid bare soil whenever possible.
- Eat them. Dandelions are good food!
- Let kids pick the flowers.
Timing is the secret to enjoying this nutritious plant. Most people know dandelions can be eaten. But, the few adventurous people who have tried them often are repelled by the plant’s bitterness. Dandelions, like most other edible greens, are best when the leaves are very young. Pick them in early spring just after they’ve started growing. Bitterness sets in as the leaves mature and the weather turns hot. The best dandelions were covered by leaves in the fall and are semi-blanched when picked in spring. Mix cleaned baby dandelion leaves into salads for a peppery zing or boil as a potherb. Young leaves are best and require the least amount of work. Steam them changing the water twice. Season with butter, salt and pepper as desired. Some folks toss the greens with chopped bacon. They are tasty. Older dandelion leaves can also be eaten but must be cooked in several changes of water to remove the bitterness. Gather mature leaves. Bring a saucepan of water to a boil and put the washed leaves in. Boil for a few minutes while bringing another saucepan of water to a boil. Remove the leaves from the first pot, drain, and add them into the clean boiling water. It may take two or three water changes, but eventually the bitterness will disappear. Season as desired. Dandelion roots are also edible and can be made into a coffee-like substitute. Consult a wild foods book for details.