There’s no arguing spring with the dandelions. When they bloom, I know that winter’s finally outta here. By May, my fields and yard are dusted with that mellow dandelion yellow. I don’t mind. I keep honeybees, and dandelions are one of the more reliable sources of early spring nectar and pollen.
Dandelion is a poetic name. Derived from the French phrase, dent de leon, it refers to the deep serrations of the leaves, which, at least to the French, resemble the teeth (dent) of a lion (leon). The flower heads are packed with innumerable tiny florets. The heads open during the day and close at night.
Arthur Haines, the research botanist for the New England Wild Flower Society, explained that there are only a handful of dandelion species in the Northeast. The large-lobed dandelion, Taraxacum latilobum, is a North American native that Haines described as "exceedingly rare." The red-seeded dandelion, Taraxacum laevigatum, a European import, is also uncommon. Hawkweeds and hawkbits, which bloom in the late summer and fall, are look-alikes but not true dandelions.
So, this time of year, when you gaze across a yellow sea of fuzzy flower heads, chances are you’re looking at Taraxacum officinale. This is the common dandelion, a native of Eurasia that has spread its weedy presence around the globe, helped along by another weedy species -- humans.
Many credit -- or blame -- the Pilgrims for bringing dandelions to the New World. That may be true, or not. The plants also could have come as seeds in the hooves of livestock, or in imported hay, or in a dozen other ways. Once they got here, they spread like a yellow flame.
"It has been really successful, like the common plantain. They’re all weeds and weeds are simply adapted to reseeding disturbed habitat," Haines told me. "Dandelions need access to mineral soil and disturbed soil. Those plants are doing well now because humans have so disturbed the environment." He noted that dandelions don’t really compete with native species or invade pristine ecosystems. Instead, they typically crowd out other non-native plants. Like ... grass.
From a dandelion’s point of view, a beautiful green lawn is nothing but a disturbed habitat just waiting for it to sink its taproot. From a lawn fetishist’s point of view, dandelions are Public Enemy No. 1. By some estimates, Americans douse their lawns with 90 million pounds of pesticides a year. Most of those are herbicides and, you can bet your little yellow flowers, most are aimed directly at dandelions. It’s not only an expensive battle, it’s a foolish one, as people poison the environment in a war they can’t win.
You could take a different view of the dandelion. It’s a view that goes back millennia, to our foraging ancestors who saw T. officinale as an herbal medicine and valuable food source.
They’re good steamed, sauteed or simply blanched in hot water and drained. Dandelion leaves make a healthful salad (the best time to harvest them is early spring, before a plant blooms). Yellow flower heads can be used to make wine. The taproot can be harvested for food or to make a coffee-like beverage. The dandelion’s value on the menu is evidenced by the fact that plant breeders have developed cultivars with bigger leaves, or are self-blanching to take out the bitterness.
"The dandelion is extremely beneficial to human health," enthused Haines. He noted that their leaves contain large amounts of carotene, which is converted by the body to vitamin A. The plants have essential minerals including calcium and manganese. They contain lecithin, an emulsifier that helps keep fat in solution and so helps the body absorb more fat-soluble vitamins. The list of the dandelion’s healthful constituents is long. "It is amazingly beneficial," Haines said. Instead of grubbing up dandelions, "we should be eating them all spring and gathering the taproots all summer."
And dandelions don’t just have value as a health food. Children, and the occasional adult, find tremendous joy in blowing fluffy dandelion seed heads into the wind. Blowing off all the seed heads is purported to make wishes come true -- exactly as often as blowing out a birthday candle. And dandelions are accomplished muses, proliferating like, well, dandelions, across a variety of different art forms and genres, from Walt Whitman to The Rolling Stones.
So, let’s sing the dandelion’s praises, whether at a poetry slam or in a salad bowl. Then blow off the seed heads and make a wishbut not for a perfect green lawn.
Joe Rankin writes about forestry and nature from his home in central Maine. The illustration for this column was drawn by Adelaide Tyrol. The Outside Story is assigned and edited by Northern Woodlands magazine and sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology Fund of New Hampshire Charitable Foundation: firstname.lastname@example.org.