Ah, spring! Buds are bursting, birds are singing, garden centers are pushing aisle after aisle of lawn maintenance products, most of them laden with the latest in chemical weed destroyers. And the No. 1 target weed, with its picture on every bag and bottle: the innocent and useful dandelion.
What makes dandelions so “bad”? Simply the fact that they are plants with broad leaves, as opposed to blades. The weed killers eradicate everything that has leaves, sparing the grass, so to sell these products they must declare every plant other than grass your lawn’s mortal enemy.
And it is far from the truth. Clover is a friend, for instance, and dandelions are neutral. They do displace grass, but they don’t destroy it — and they don’t really compete with it all that well, either. Turf that is healthy and well maintained will prevent dandelions from moving in.
Dandelions got some huge national attention recently, thanks to the popularity of the film Hunger Games. Several references to the humble weed had viewers puzzling over their symbolism. The author of the book on which the movie was based actually discussed this in another book in the same trilogy. “The bright yellow … means rebirth instead of destruction," Suzanne Collins wrote. “The promise that life can go on, no matter how bad our losses.”
The irony is that historically, this maligned weed was actually invited in to our country. English Colonists brought the seeds to plant for both food and medicine, and after that, the dandelions spread rapidly on their own. Each time the settlers moved farther West, the plants were already there, waiting to greet them. And until synthetic herbicides arrived, shortly after World War II, dandelion greens were a much-loved staple across the country.
In early spring, before flowers form, the tender, young leaves are both sweet and slightly bitter, like endive, and are delicious raw. Adding just a few will elevate any lettuce mixture to new heights. Highly seasoned, all-dandelion salads (like my Pennsylvania German favorite, traditionally made with cider vinegar, brown sugar, bacon and black pepper) are in a class by themselves.
Later in the season, when flower buds appear at the base of the plant, dandelions taste better cooked (I’m partial to olive oil, with a lot of garlic). Then it’s time to leave them alone; as soon as flower stalks start rising, the greens turn tough and are disagreeably bitter.
Herbalists prescribe dandelions for a long list of digestive ills, but medicinally the greens and roots are best known as diuretics. The French call them pissenlit (“piss in bed”). And this is one case where the natural cure offers a useful bonus over its synthetic counterpart: Most commercial diuretics deplete potassium, whereas fresh dandelions provide lots of it.
Dandelions also contain significant amounts of other essential minerals: magnesium, phosphorus, copper, calcium, iron and manganese, vitamins A, B6, C and K, riboflavin and thiamin — all delivered with a healthy dose of dietary fiber.
Need more? Dandelions aren’t only good to taste and good for your health, but they’re also good for the environment. Their long taproots loosen packed earth and bring minerals from deep under ground to enrich the topsoil. The cheery yellow flowers are a major source of food for bees and, in moderation, are a great accent for the deep green of a well-kept lawn.
Admittedly, there has to be enough lawn to accent. When we moved into our house, 20 years ago, the lawn had too many dandelions, even for me. So each time I cut off a rosette of greens, digging down to get as much of the root as possible, I patched the hole with a handful of soil, sowed grass seed in it and watered well.
Because I didn’t get all of the roots, the dandelions grew back. But the new growth was weaker and the fortified grass was a stronger competitor. Over time, most of the established plants died, and the ever-thickening turf kept most new seeds from sprouting.
Thankfully, that’s most, not all. Our natural lawn will always have a few dandelions — but it doesn’t have the chemicals, which is the point. We need those dandelions not only to feed ourselves and the bees, but also for the long-stemmed flowers our granddaughter weaves into golden crowns, as countless generations of children before her have done.
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