The ever-pervasive dandelion. It’s one of the first plants to sprout in spring, when the ground is barely free of frost, and remains steadfast through the season with vibrant pops of yellow and downy balls of seeds so nostalgic of childhood wonderment.
Somehow, somewhere along the way, this humble plant that has fed and healed humanity for thousands of years became a blight on our landscape. Dismissed as a weed, eradicated at all costs, cursed and scorned for its stubbornly long taproots that often refuse to give from the earth, it’s earned a reputation for invasiveness and uselessness.
But I’m here to make a case for the common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), which you might be eyeing right about now, weeder in hand, as a galaxy of yellow blooms starts spreading across your Kentucky bluegrass.
While you might consider it the bane of an otherwise perfectly manicured lawn, here are a few reasons why the lowly dandelion is the unsung hero of your yard.
Dandelions are not as invasive as commonly thought.
Though they’re non-native to North America (originally hailing from Europe), dandelions are not considered invasive by federal agencies. An annoyance, perhaps, but far from being aggressively spreading plants that alter natural habitats, the hallmark of a truly invasive species.
Dandelions have naturalized throughout all 50 states (as well as most of Canada and even Mexico) and are believed to have been brought over by the Pilgrims, who planted the herb as a medicinal crop.
Dandelions add color to the drab landscape of early spring.
As soon as frost has passed, dandelions begin to dot the southern slopes, brightening the brown and gray landscape with pops of chartreuse. In a matter of weeks, those same dandelions start to unfurl into a carpet of gold against all the new green — a brilliant bloom of color and texture, all without you sowing a seed or lifting a trowel.
Dandelions are an important source of food for wildlife.
When bees, butterflies, and other pollinators emerge in early spring, a tricky time with few other flowers blooming, they depend on dandelions as an early source of pollen and nectar. The flowers provide nectar for nearly 100 species of insects, while the seeds and leaves feed over 30 species of birds, chipmunks, and other wildlife.
Got backyard chickens? Let them go to town on a patch of dandelions after a long and dreary winter. The greens provide plenty of nutrients for rich golden yolks, and happy chickens scratching (and pooping) in the dirt means healthy aerated soil.
Dandelions encourage biodiversity.
Their presence alone attracts and supports several key species in the local ecosystem, including bees, butterflies, moths, and birds, which in turn pollinate fruits, vegetables, herbs, and other flowers that feed even more species. Hummingbirds use dandelion down to line their tiny nests, and beneficial insects and lizards seek shelter under the low-growing leaves (which often rest on the ground in a dense rosette).
Dandelions protect the soil.
And they do so just by growing: the roots hold the soil together to help prevent wind and water erosion. And since the plants grow so quickly, they spread to cover bare soil and act as a natural mulch by providing shade and conserving moisture.
Dandelions aerate and condition distressed soil.
The long, strong taproots of dandelions push through into dry, cracked, compacted earth, helping to break it up, create channels for air and water to penetrate, and maintain a loose soil structure that allows earthworms to do their work. The plants draw calcium, iron, and potassium from deep in the earth into their leaves. When they die and decompose, they leave behind mineral-rich organic matter that nourishes the soil.
(Gardening tip: To maintain their spread, cut the plants back before the seeds disperse into the wind. Tuck them under the mulch for a tidier garden, or let the plants compost in situ. Leave the roots in the ground; as a perennial plant they will often regrow, or eventually decay and enrich the soil food web.)
Dandelions are edible from root to flower.
Though we typically think of dandelions as flowers, the plant is a perennial herb and is one of the oldest herbs used for food and healing — since before Roman times! Every part of a dandelion is edible, from root to flower.
As a relative of chicory, dandelion root can be dried and roasted and used as a substitute for, or addition to, coffee. The root can also be peeled and cooked like a turnip. Young dandelion leaves are among the most nutritious you’ll find of any leafy green, and can be used in a salad, on a pizza, or in a pesto. Mature leaves can be sauteed or added to soups and stews. Ever tried dandelion chips? (You can make them like kale chips!)
(Here’s a fun fact: the name dandelion is a corrupted pronunciation of the French dent de lion, or “lion’s tooth,” referring to the jagged leaves that are characteristic of the plant.)
As for the flower, it can be tossed with a salad, steeped into tea, or turned into wine.
Dandelions have medicinal value.
For thousands of years, various parts of the dandelion plant have been used to naturally detoxify the body and support healthy liver function and kidney function.
The herb is well-documented as a diuretic, hence its other French name, pis en lit (which sounds much more romantic than its English translation, “piss the bed.”)
Dandelions have been used holistically to stimulate the appetite, settle upset stomach, improve skin issues, encourage breastmilk production, and treat a host of other ailments including heartburn, mastitis, inflammation, constipation, and hormonal imbalance.
Preliminary animal studies also suggest that dandelions may help normalize blood sugar and lower cholesterol.
Anyone under the age of 10 loves a good dandelion patch.
I remember skipping down the sidewalk and picking every dandelion globe in my path, giving a mighty blow and watching with delight as the puffs fluttered through the air. Little did I know at that young age that I was inadvertently distributing the seeds far and wide. To me, the puffs were akin to fairy dust, or a mini snowstorm in my arid hometown of Las Vegas.
And who doesn’t love the whimsy of a dandelion clock? You know: the childhood game where the number of breaths needed to blow away all the seeds is the hour of day. It might be three o’clock or ten o’clock or twenty o’clock, but no matter — you can try and try again until you get it right.
I also remember lying on the grass on a lazy afternoon with my friends, making dandelion crowns for ourselves and our dolls. Or dipping the flowers in paint and stamping them onto paper to make an abstract masterpiece for the fridge. Or picking a handful of flowers to bring home and put into a glass of water — something I still do to this day, as a cheery little bouquet of blooms always makes me smile.