One of my childhood memories is of my grandfather using an old paring knife to remove dandelions from his postage stamp-sized backyard. On bended knees, he’d crawl from plant to plant with skillful determination and eradicate dandelions with engineering precision. So of course, like most of us, I grew up believing that this plant was an unwanted weed and nothing more.
Well, this plant – accidentally introduced to America by early colonists – is really so much more than a hindrance to a weed-free lawn.
A recent article by Master Gardener Rhonda Fleming highlights and encourages us to take another look at what is probably the very first weed we were introduced to, Taraxacum officinale, the common dandelion.
Those early colonists knew this plant to have many useful purposes in day-to-day life. The leaf, flower and root were used for a number of ailments. Dandelion tea will soothe an upset stomach and is a natural detoxifier for the body. It contains fiber, vitamin C and K, as well as other minerals.
And then there’s dandelion wine, which is said to taste warm and earthy, with citrus overtones from the lemons and oranges, but I have yet to try it though it appears to be very popular. The new raw leaves are a great addition to salads, and cooking them is easy with just a bit of olive oil and garlic.
But as a Master Gardener whose exposed to a wide range of the latest information on gardening, the dandelion benefit I’m most interested in is its importance to our native bumble bee and other pollinators.
Dandelions are an important first source of nectar for those early pollinators. They blossom early, and the flower isn’t affected by late freezes, too much or too little rain or poor soil.
To some degree, lawns actually benefit from dandelions as they aerate the soil and bring up needed nutrients with their long taproots. Using herbicides to eradicate them can harm lakes and rivers as those chemicals find their way into our waterways.
Despite these benefits, there is still a desire for a weed-free lawn among most homeowners, so what is the best strategy to get rid of dandelions without harming the environment? Hand-pulling with the help of a fork-type tool and after a good rain is preferred over herbicides.
When using herbicides, wait until the plant is actively growing, then use precise spot-spraying with a broadleaf weed killer on a calm day to avoid drifting. Be sure to follow all label directions.
And to benefit those pollinators, don’t mow your grass until the first round of flowers are ready to set seed. When you do mow, raising the mower blade after they set seed will shade out some of the seeds before they can germinate.
Donna Tatting is a Chisago County Master Gardener.