Love Them, Hate Them, Eat Them, or Slay Them… They’re Just Dandelions

It’s odd, when you stop to think about it, that a field of flowers is considered ugly… if the flowers happen to be dandelions and the field in question is a lawn. Do you know any kids who don’t like dandelions? Did you, as a kid, play with them? I’ve never met a child who wasn’t fond of them. Whether it’s plucking a whole fistful and making a bouquet for a favorite teacher or mom, or, if devotion isn’t your thing, there’s the supremely satisfying feeling of “beheading” the flower. Using only your little thumb, you reign destruction with a simple little pop. For the truly barbaric, there is a chant to be recited beforehand, involving a mama and a baby. And any kid can tell you the most scientific way of ascertaining whether or not someone likes butter is to rub a dandelion under their chin: if the chin turns yellow, that person likes butter.

And then there are the puffballs. You blow as hard as you can, and each individual seed is borne on the wind… why, to a kid, that’s poetry. Especially when the seeds land in a friend’s hair or tickle his or her face.

Kids know what’s cool. Adults, on the other hand… Well, once upon a time they had it right. When the first European colonists came to America, they brought dandelion seeds with them. They did this for logical, staid, grownup reasons that had nothing to do with blowing puffballs in someone’s face. For them it was simply about survival. Dandelions appear very early in the spring, and their greens are rich in nutrients like vitamin C, calcium, iron, and fiber – more so even than broccoli.

They have more vitamin A than carrots- thirteen times as much. They have more beta- carotene than any other vegetable, and they contain numerous trace minerals. And that’s just the leaves. The official Latin name for the dandelion, taraxacum officinale, means “official remedy”. The roots are used to treat liver and digestive disorders, and also to make a caffeine free coffee substitute. The “milk” from the stems is used to treat warts.

Dandelions can also be used to make dyes. The flowers produce – of course– a bright yellow, and the entire plant, somewhat unexpectedly, creates a rich magenta. And let us not forget the most popular use of the dandelion: making delicious wine.

Dandelions also attract beneficial insects such as ladybugs. In fact, they are the main source of food for at least 93 different bugs.

Not only do dandelions have a multitude of uses, what most people who classify them as weeds don’t realize is: they are actually beneficial to lawn and landscape. Dandelions’ deep taproots draw up minerals from the subsoil. And because their roots are so deep, they do not rob grass of nutrients, as is commonly believed. The roots break up compacted soil, increasing aeration. They also emit ethylene, a gas that inhibits the growth of nearby plants. In other words: that means less mowing!

So if a neighbor should look down his or her nose at your yard, talk enthusiastically about your mineral extracting, compaction decreasing, ethylene emitting, lawn-mowing reducing plan, and offer to share your dandelion seed.

If you are now fully convinced of the dandelion’s many merits, you can stop reading after you finish this paragraph. If you’re still not ready to do an about-face and gaze upon dandelions with affection, don’t worry, you can get rid of them without resorting to using toxic products. The simplest technique is to set your mower blade at three inches. Why? For starters, the length of a blade of grass is proportional to the length of the root. Grass that is slightly longer is more drought-resistant, and able to extract more nutrients from the soil. What’s this got to do with dandelions? Longer grass shades the ground, and dandelion and other weed seeds can’t germinate if the sun doesn’t reach the soil.

The trick to eliminating any lawn weed is to encourage the conditions that promote healthy grass and discourage the conditions that favor weeds. Dandelions thrive in compacted soil. Adding compost will not only decrease compaction, it will add beneficial microorganisms and improve water retention. Corn gluten meal is a natural, non-toxic “weed and feed” – it prevents weeds from forming roots and it is a slow release nitrogen fertilizer.

Using one or both of these soil amendments will do much to improve your lawn. The results aren’t instantaneous, but over time you will see a big difference. Corn gluten meal can be used in the spring, when the soil reaches 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and again in the fall. Both of these products are available locally at garden centers, feed stores and hardware stores.

To get rid of the dandelions you already have, dig them up – getting as much of the root as possible—in the spring when the ground is still moist and the roots aren’t too deep. Special tools, such as the Weedhound or the aptly named Dandelion Digger, are available at hardware stores.

Spot treating with nontoxic herbicides such as vinegar, or safe products like Burnout™ or Sharpshooter™, are also an option. You might need to apply them more than once, and they work best on a bright sunny day. Adding a touch of clear dish soap will cause the vinegar to stick to leaves better. The five percent acetic acid vinegar works on seedlings; for mature plants use nine percent acetic acid pickling vinegar.

Love them, hate them, eat them, or slay them… they’re just dandelions. The important thing to remember is you don’t cut butter with a chain saw, and you don’t need to kill fuzzy little flowers with hazardous, toxic chemicals that can seriously harm you and the environment.
Carrie Slater Duffy is the Safe Lawn & Garden Campaign Coordinator

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