We’re nearly a month into spring, but the landscapes are turning green painfully slow. I find myself looking forward to the first dandelions popping through.
I hear a lot of grumbling and complaining about dandelions. Weeds spoiling the lawn, neighbors who let the dandelions take over and produce an insidious crop of seed to infest the lawns of others.
I like dandelions. Their sunny, yellow blooms make a beautiful contrast to the bright, green, spring grass. I remember childhood games, with the question, “Do you love butter?” followed by a bloom smeared on someone’s chin to leave a yellow stain. Making toys of the flowers’ hollow stems, creating a ring by pushing the smaller blossom end inside the wider base, and linking them together in long chains. Blowing on the silvery puff of seeds and watching them fly away.
The common dandelion is not native to North America, but has easily naturalized across the U.S. It was brought here by European settlers, who valued it for food and medicinal uses, and took comfort in having a familiar and reliable resource at their disposal. My father recalled his mother’s enthusiasm at the season’s first crop of fresh, nutritious dandelion greens for the table, a welcome break from the winter’s diet of rutabagas, canned goods and salt pork. I don’t think he shared her enthusiasm, however.
The roots were also harvested in the fall, dried, roasted and ground, then brewed like coffee for a soothing beverage. My herb books list abundant historical medicinal uses for the dried roots, but I wouldn’t speculate on whether they are recognized today. On the other hand, flower petals are used to make jam and dandelion wine, both of which I have sampled.
So, it was only with the best intentions that the dandelion was brought to our landscapes.
And they have other value. Dandelions are rich in both pollen and nectar, making them an essential food source for our troubled honeybee population and other insects. And say what you will about their appearance in the lawn, unlike turfgrass, their low mats of leaves remain green throughout the hottest, driest summer weather.
Other common weeds came to us through similar circumstances, and have become just as firmly entrenched. Burdock and Queen Anne’s lace were all loved enough to bring along on a journey to a new land, and have become part of our legacy.
Regardless of their history, most of us don’t really want these plants in our landscapes.
Dandelions, as well as burdock and Queen Anne’s lace can be controlled, if not eliminated, using broadleaf weed controls formulated for lawns. In flower beds or gardens a spot treatment of a non-selective herbicide with glyphosate (Roundup and Kleenup, for example) works well.
A chemical-free option is simply pulling or digging out the taproots wherever the distinctive rosette of leaves appears. I’ve seen people camped out on the lawn with a paring knife, methodically digging plant by plant. A long-handled weeding tool with a forked tip is a lot easier on the back; push into the ground next to the center of the plant, pull to the side and twist to lift the plant from the ground. A short-handled version is good for extracting weeds that have managed to take hold in the center of a prized plant. My personal favorite is a clever tool called a weed hound, a long rod with crosspieces at the top and bottom. Center over the rosette of leaves and step on the crosspieces to push a ring of spikes around the taproot. Lift to close the spikes and grasp the root, then smack a release button to pop off the dandelion, ready to grab another.