Dandelions have long been the bane of many lawn owners. While people are increasingly touting the benefits of them, many municipalities still regulate how “dandeliony” the suburban lawn can be, or at least offer advice on how to eliminate them.
You also might have heard an increase of people advocating for the so-called weed.
“Weed,” you see, is a relative term. It’s simply a plant that is growing somewhere you don’t want. Some are genuinely a problem, taking over natural ecosystems, damaging crops, and poisoning livestock (as well as pets and children). However, many of your typical garden weeds are actually quite edible and/or beneficial. I might get more into that someday. but for now, I just want to stand up for the common dandelion.
Like many weeds dandelions, or at least the common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and the red-seeded dandelion (T. erythrospermum) are introduced here in North America. While they may have been brought by accident, they were cultivated by early settlers for medicine and a taste of home. 1 That, combined with their wonderful ability to spread their seeds, has meant that they now thrive throughout the world.
So what did the early settlers see that we don’t?
Dandelions Are Delicious and Healthy
If you are a fan of YA novels, you might remember that Katniss Everdeen saved her family’s life in The Hunger Games by feeding them dandelions.
But dandelions aren’t just survival food for starving fictional characters and settlers of centuries past, they are actually rather tasty and nutritious. They are rich in vitamins A, B, C, and K. They also contain iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc and vitamins E, B and D. It is also rich in inulin, a soluble fibre that can help maintain gut flora healthier. 10 2 I’ll get back to the health benefit in the next section.
Some people (admittedly not me), love the tender fresh leaves in their salad. I find them tolerable. The greens can also be steamed or sautéed and eaten like spinach. Depending on where you live, they are likely the first local greens available in the spring.
Don’t let me put you off with my lacklustre review of the greens. I do find the other dandelion parts delicious. The flower makes a nice addition to a salad, especially with a sweet dressing like a raspberry vinaigrette. You can also batter them and fry them up for dandelion fritters. I’ve also added them to muffin batter to add a bit of flavour and vitamins.
My favourite, however, is the coffee. I am considerably less tolerant of dandelions in my garden, so I take advantage of the ones that thrive in the rich soil. I dig up giant the taproots, roast them, and grind them. It makes for a wonderfully nutty coffee substitute that is rich in vitamins and minerals.
Dandelion wine is also easy to make. I’ve yet to do it myself since I’m not much of a drinker, but I have tasted it, and it’s fairly yummy. It also seems pretty easy to make.
Okay, so the list of dandelion medical claims is long and largely unproven in peer-reviewed studies. Dandelions have, however, been used throughout history. Most studies on dandelion have limited scope and have only been performed on animals.
Perhaps the best-documented property of dandelion is its use as a diuretic. In fact, it’s a registered diuretic in Canada. 3 It helps kidneys remove salt from the body and decreasing fluid in the veins. This can improve cardiovascular health and reduce tissue swelling and bloating. Diuretics are also used to detoxify liver and gallbladder and treat kidney disorders such as kidney stones .4
The dandelion also has antioxidant properties, which have the potential to support a healthy liver and remove free radicals. Free radicals can cause damage to cells, which, in turn, causes accelerated ageing. They are also linked to neurological diseases such as Huntington’s Disease and Alzheimers. Free radicals may contribute to rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and cataracts. Evidence varies as to how much free radicals affect the aforementioned. 5 6
Dandelions contain inulin which is a soluble fibre that absorbs water, allowing it to pick up fat particles and remove them from the body. Some studies show that it can regulate blood sugar and lower fat levels. It also promotes the growth of healthy gut bacteria, which can help with digestive troubles and weight loss 2.
Among other traditional uses with even less scientific evidence is treatments for warts (from the milky substance in the stem), fever, breast problems, PMS, eye problems, tonsilitis, anemia, jaundice, nervousness, gout, eczema, and spleen support. Some evidence also suggests that it has anti-inflammatory properties, which may explain at least some of the above benefits. Oh, and it’s also been used as a mosquito repellent. 1 7 8 9 3
Dandelions are Good for Your Lawn
Believe it or not, dandelions are actually helping your lawn. Those deep tap roots that make them so hard to get rid of bring up nutrients from deep within your soil. Once the dandelions are mowed or wilt in winter, those nutrients are introduced into the soil and made available for the shallow grass roots. The taproots also break up hard soils making it easier for your grass’ roots to grow and for beneficial critters and fungi to work their way into the soil. They also aerate and provide some nice deep anchors to prevent erosion. 11
Dandelions are Pretty
You may not think so, but if you reframe dandelions as something other than a weed, you just might start to see them as pretty. Why not have a little splash of colour or a sea of delicate, wispy seedheads on your lawn? They will grow in many places that other flowers won’t, so you have opportunities for splashes of colour in places that would otherwise be whole-heartedly bland.
Kids Love Them
Have you ever met a kid who doesn’t love dandelions? I’ve had countless kindergarten students bring me carefully picked dandelion bouquets. From a kid’s perspective, dandelions aren’t a weed, but a pretty yellow flower – one that they are allowed to pick. I would argue that dandelion crowns and necklaces are a quintessential part of childhood. Not to mention that they make fantastic additions to mudpies, exquisites decorations for forts, and whatever else their little imaginations can come up with. Come seed time, they offer the opportunity to make wishes or divine how many children they’ll have (or whatever local lore dictates). And of course, kids love those dandelion fritters I mentioned (battered and deep-fried anything is popular with kids).
Dandelions Attract Pollinators
Dandelions are among the first flower to arrive in spring, giving bees one of their first food sources. Note that they aren’t actually a complete food source 12 (you’ll have to let some other “weeds” grow for that) but they will still bring the bees to your yard so they can pollinate your flower and veggie gardens. They also attract other pollinators such as butterflies, hoverflies, and beetles.
But…Dandelions Aren’t Native
Invasive species are frequently cited as one of the word’s biggest threats to biodiversity. Common dandelion and Red-seeded dandelion are indeed introduced from Europe. Our own native dandelions are few and far between.
Despite their prolific nature, introduced dandelions grow primarily in disturbed sites and don’t have much success in wild areas. The result is that ecologists aren’t particularly concerned about them. I once met with an invasive weeds specialist at a remote site to discuss invasive weeds in the park. When I asked about the population of scrawny dandelions, she was quick to point out that they were actually a native species. She went on to say that even the introduced ones were of little economic or ecological concern, and were not worth the millions of dollars it would take to control them.
Now, despite its edibility, some jurisdictions have gone ahead and listed it the dandelion as a noxious weed. For a plant to be noxious, it needs to be deemed by a government to be harmful.14 With a push for dandelions to be seen as a beneficial plant, many places have lifted the dandelion’s “noxious weed” status, or at least moved it to a “least concern” list.
But Doesn’t Dandelion Harm Crops?
Short answer: Maybe.
I searched for estimates on how much they actually cost the agriculture industry and can’t find much – just that they tend to be low on the concern list of various agriculture departments. Manitoba, a jurisdiction that still lists dandelions as noxious, states that while dandelions can reduce productivity, it doesn’t affect crop quality. It goes on to say that as long as a crop is vigorous enough, it should outcompete the dandelions.13 Perusing the government agriculture sites of other jurisdictions in North America yields similar results. When it comes to pastures, at least one study suggests that animals will typically graze on them as much, or more than grass (depending on the animal). 17 However, I’ve also heard plenty of anecdotal evidence of livestock not being fans of dandelions.
So Why Does my Homeowners Association Say I Have to Kill my Dandelions?
Bylaw code after bylaw code sets out rules and guidelines for the prevention of dandelion spread. There is lots of information out there on how to rid your lawn of them, but precious little on why.
It all comes down to the cultural history of the lawn. The immaculate monocultured lawn, meant solely for aesthetics and recreation, was once something only the wealthy could afford. While lawn maintenance costs have gone down, the perception of affluence they conjure remains. 16 Homeowners associations feel the continued need to show off (or try to prove) its middle-classness by stipulating how everyone’s lawns should look. They don’t take into account the ecological impact of pesticide use, introduced grass species, wasted water, fossil fuels use, or the loss of biodiversity. The Smithsonian does a good job of summing up the various problems with lawns.
The only convincing argument I’ve found is that there are some people out there with allergies. If you have a particularly strong pollen allergy, or react badly to dandelions, by all means, go destroy your dandelions.
But There is Hope
Many cities are starting to ban the use of cosmetic pesticides, meaning the dandelions are flourishing. People are becoming more aware of the ecological problems with conventional lawn care and more research is being done on their health benefits. Perhaps the most interesting bit of research that I’ve found has been regarding the latex (that milky sap) found in the stems and roots. Research is underway to breed dandelions to produce more of it in the hopes that it can become an economically viable source of rubber. Continental Tires has already made a tire with a tread made from 100% dandelion latex. It’s not available for purchase yet, but multiple other companies are also working to develop dandelion latex. 17
More and more people are jumping on the dandelion-loving bandwagon. I would like to invite you to join us.
If you would like to read a bit more about wild foods available in spring, click here. If you would like to view one of my earlier (ie. embarrassing) videos on dandelions, see below.