Jorge Cruz earned a doctorate in Plant Physiology and studied the effect of environmental conditions on carbon metabolism in wheat and rice.
We all love nature in our own singular way. No one can stay oblivious to the brisk freshness of the first days of Spring, impassive to the outburst of the life-lifting Petrichor smell of April rain, deaf to the exploding chorus of morning birds. When life emerges in Spring, our senses effervesce, our mood burst, our thirsty skin gets ready for sunbathing. And we open doors and windows and our lungs and our pores and rush upon the garden and the backyard, with the impetus of explorers finding new lands after crossing through the ocean of Winter. And there, in the comforting oblivion of that microworld, sprouting with daring contrast through the immaculate greenery of our landscape is,...a Dandelion.
From this point, this article continues in two divergent Parallel Universes.
Green Parallel Universe
Our garden always get filled with dandelions (Taraxacum officinale), generations of them have claimed the rich and benevolent soil for years, making use of its minerals, humus, and texture but also contributing to it by fixating and transforming inert nitrogen, the main component gas of the atmosphere, and making it accessible to other plants in bio-available forms, such as nitrates and ammonium salts—much like a baker turns flour into cookies to make it eatable. Dandelions can capture the nitrogen thank to symbiosis with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, microorganisms living in their roots, the nitrogen fixation process reduces the need to apply mineral fertilizers, chemicals harmful to the soil's micro-fauna and difficult to dose properly.
Diagram of Plant Fixing Nitrogen
The first dandelion is always a sign of an end and a beginning, a reassuring symbol that things will be all right. As soon as they appear, the garden fills with a new crowd. Bees, ladybugs, and hummingbirds come and go spreading the voice, and the pollen, a critical staple to their own sustenance. A healthy population of those pollinators is, in turn, essential to enable the reproduction of other plants, shrubs, and trees that rely on sexual reproduction. As for the dandelions, they reproduce mostly asexually. Either from viable seeds produced by a single plant or as new shoots growing out of their extensive roots. A small root fragment can generate a whole new plant in days. The slender flowery plant is as robust as an ax (no wonder they are called after lions), with great ability to settle in myriad environments and therefore they don't need to rely solely on the adaptability conferred by the exchange of genes. In any given place, most dandelions are the same clone.
The following diagram summarizes the environmental benefits of dandelions.
Dandelions have a long catalog of uses. Most notably, as tea, salads, wine, natural medicine, and even decaffeinated coffee. Every part of the dandelion plant, a staple in early North America colonial life, is edible, but the leaves are the most nutritious appendage. They are packed with antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, and proteins.
Recipes to make dandelion tea from roots, flowers, leaves, or a combination of them abound. I am including some links to well-described recipes below. Roots are better dig out when the soil is humid—like after a rain—so they don't break. Be sure that you remove all dirt and clean them well. Dipping the roots in a pan with tap water for few minutes helps to lose the soil trapped in the crevices.
Prepare the tea either from fresh roots or from dried roots purchased in a natural products store. The preparation differs in that the fresh roots can just be just infused in boiled water while the dried roots—quite woody—need to be chopped well and decoct in boiling water for a minimum of five minutes. You can add to it chopped fresh dandelion leaves or flowers after you remove the saucepan with the roots from the stove and let it steep for few more minutes. Then you can also mix the dandelion tea with lemon, honey, cinnamon, maple syrup.
Here is a summary of culinary dandelions uses.
Here is a summary of some nutrition information on dandelions (minerals and vitamins are not included):
The medicinal usage of dandelions is well rooted in human history. Traditional Chinese medicine has used dandelions for thousands of years and the flower was well-known for its curative properties to ancient Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks. One of the most popular medicinal uses of dandelions is to cure digestive illness and liver and kidney problems. But the list of curative properties goes well pass the résumé of any pharmacy's bottle. To mention some: weakness, depression, toothache, sores, fevers, gum disease, bacterial infections, eye macular degeneration, also but not least, dandruff, boldness, and warts. In fact, the British Kew's ethnomedica project describes over a hundred recommendations to cure warts with dandelions.
A scientific explanation of the magic relies on the plethora of vitamins (A, B, C, and D), minerals (iron, potassium, magnesium, and zinc) and antioxidants packed in the little plant tissues. For example, dandelions have more vitamin C than lemons and tomatoes and more vitamin A than spinach. Dandelions helped save lives in the era when vitamins tablets were unknown and unavailable in pharmacies, and scorbutus, blindness, and other malignancies were killing millions. To this day, every apothecary and natural medicine pharmacy will have a list of products based on dandelions.
For a summary—if that is even possible—of these and other curative properties of dandelions check the following box:
Rubber manufacture is a surprising new use of the dandelions. Recently, researchers at Ohio University invented a method to produce rubber from dandelion's roots. To make the technique more efficient they are trying to engineer the plant using CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing to the point where the plant will be as cost-effective for rubber production as rubber trees grown in Malaysia and other Asian nations.
On top of all the practical uses of dandelions, they also are the favorite children's flower, in other words, one of few flowers a child can pick and get away with it. Some people confirm that you can have a wish granted if you ask for it while catching a dandelion seed on the flight.
All in all, these ubiquitous plants—World famous for their beauty—are human's ally. They help to safeguard our environment, provide food and health remedies, and make our landscape look bright and cheerful.
Gray Parallel Universe
Humans cultivated dandelions for hundreds of years in Europe and Asia, and the weed was brought to Americas by early colonialists where it was a staple for most of the modern history in the New World. However, now that richer food is available at low prices this invasive species is obsolete.
We start to kill dandelions early in Spring before the obnoxious weed takes over the whole landscape. Fortunately, with some patience and few of the numerous available techniques and products you can be relieved from the pest and recover your meticulous and expensive garden in less time than what the dandelions need to recover.
An easy and sustainable way of preventing dandelions to invade the whole of your property is to let the grass grow taller, 6 - 8 inches (15 - 20 cm). Cut it with a push lawn mower. Dandelions need sunlight, a lot of it, and they have trouble competing with grass grown beyond 6 - 8 inches. We highly recommend this.
Notwithstanding, the consumer garden industry has launched, of course, several methods to eliminate dandelions, some environmentally harmful, but quite rewarding, and therefore widely advertised in the media.
Mowing the lawn frequently with a gasoline-fuelled lawn mower is one of the most popular ways. Simultaneously you will be generating more carbon dioxide than what twenty average passenger cars produce for the same amount of mechanical work and making enough noise to scare away the fauna in one hectare around yourself—not to mention to anger your neighbors and damage your eardrums. Still, this will not kill the original dandelion plant but will slow down their growth rate for few days, so you get to enjoy the mowing several times per month during spring and summer.
A multimillion-dollar industry of dandelion diggers—resembling medieval torture weapons— provides several tools to dig out the roots. A technique that will get your back strained, but will enable you to enjoy good weekends quality time with your garden.
Covering the dandelions with a cardboard or plastic box blocks the sunlight that the plants need to photosynthesize and will kill them in few days. A practice that will also kill some lawn around the dandelion, but that's OK, the box will surely look prettier than a bright yellow flower growing in a green lawn, so you can just leave it there.
If you don't want to wait to slowly asphyxiate the dandelions with a cardboard box, use a more violent method: a burner torch. The fire will create a micro-disaster zone, ash and smoke elevating from the crematory to poison sunlight, and Spring. The blaze will obviously kill the part of the plant above the ground together with the microflora of the soil and neighboring weeds or plants. These other organisms are necessary for a healthy landscape, but that might be a little price to pay to quickly—but temporarily—eliminate the dandelion. Watch out your toes though, make sure you use appropriate footwear.
Here is a couple of homemade remedies so you don't have to spend your savings on weapons of mass dandelion destruction. First: vinegar; boil it down to concentrate the acetic acid and spray it to the weed. Even better if you pull out the dandelion and pour the concentrated vinegar into the hole to kill the roots. It will also kill other plants, small insects and worms, and some lawn of course, but you will likely eliminate the flowery dandelion plant and create in its place a yellowish fetid crater where nothing will grow—for a long time.
The second homemade remedy: salt; as with the vinegar, you can put it at the base of the plant or into the hole after removing it. The outcome will be similar to the vinegar. Muriatic acid and boiling water also have been used with some success.
We left for the end the most environmentally unfriendly dandelion killing method: chemical herbicides. Be sure that you apply the herbicide only to the dandelion leaves, otherwise you will kill everything alive around your target. After the foliage of the plant dies, the active ingredients in the herbicide will penetrate the plant and kill the roots. The runoff will also filter down into the soil and end up in waterways and rivers, where glyphosate, atrazine, and other chemicals will poison wildlife.
Here is a summary of some of the most popular Dandelion-killing methods.
Conclusion: Green vs. Gray Parallel Universes.
Historically—from the Old Continent to New Worlds, dandelions have been loved both for their utility and their beauty. Why some gardeners fight them today? Are you one? Think how many commercial flowers are not nearly as beautiful as dandelions. You only need to walk into a flower store and look without prejudice. A smooth, impeccable, green lawn, is appreciated by everyone. However, you can still have that for months. Dandelion sunny flowers and whiskery seeds last about 2 or 3 weeks in Spring, later a little tall lawn will keep the remaining plant in check and invisible. Let's give this little stubborn organism a chance to elevate our environment. And Us.
© 2018 Jorge Cruz
Jorge Cruz (author) from Canada on February 04, 2018:
Thank you for your input Mary
Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on February 04, 2018:
Interesting to know that they have many uses. I will be more respectful of them from now on. I have not tried dandelion tea yet. Am looking forward to spring.