To a child, the bright yellow flowers make a beautiful bouquet, and blowing the seeds off has become a favorite game. To nutritionists, dandelions offer a veritable cornucopia of nutrients. And to many a homeowner, the relentless root systems destroy the lush greenness of an otherwise perfect lawn.
Never has a single plant been so beloved and so reviled. Historians have discovered the dandelion was used as a medicine and food in ancient China, Egypt and Greece. It probably came to North America with the Pilgrims on the Mayflower, not as a stowaway, but for its nutritional value. It’s really only since World War II that lawn mania has led to a concerted war on dandelions.
And the name? It is derived from the French “dent-de-lion” or lion’s tooth, for the shape of the leaves.
Katrina Blair, owner of Turtle Lake Refuge, comes down strongly on the nutritional side of the debate.
“Dandelions are packed with nutrients,” she said. “It’s interesting, if all you had to eat were dandelions, if you ate the entire thing – roots, stems, flowers, leaves, seeds – you could survive on it because it’s a complete protein.”
Blair has been consuming dandelions since before she could walk. They’re a bit of acquired taste, she said, but they contain high levels of vitamins A and C, iron, magnesium and calcium.
“The first time you eat a leaf, it might taste a little bitter,” she said. “Then you start craving it, and that bitterness, because our bodies know how powerful it is, how it’s toning our organs. Bodies recognize it and say, ‘Wow, I want that.’”
Turtle Lake Refuge serves dandelions in all kinds of ways, from salads and pestos to the roots, which taste a bit like coffee.
“We just roast it and dry it,” Blair said. “It’s so replenishing and rejuvenating for the liver. It provides a nice balance after a hard night.”
Carver Brewing Co. brews a dandelion beer, using dandelions provided by Turtle Lake Refuge, which it sells on tap. And dandelions wouldn’t be a full-service food without dessert.
“Our dandelion ice cream is sold at Durango Natural Foods,” Blair said. “It’s like a lemon sorbet, with honey, lemon, water; we make it creamy by adding avocado and, of course, dandelions. We create all the recipes we use at Turtle Lake.”
Turtle Lake gets its dandelions from a variety of places, picking them in Brookside Park, harvesting them from the woods around the lake and collecting them from friends and supporters.
“Of course, you don’t want them from any place where herbicides or chemical fertilizers are used because you don’t want to put those things in your body,” Blair said. “We also harvest a lot and dry them for winter because we use dandelions all year long as a winter green powder, combined with other plants, but mainly dandelions.”
Blair recommends using about a half teaspoon of the powder in water in a smoothie or juice.
“It helps to get the wild minerals in your body,” she said, “and to stay connected to this land.”
If you don’t want to consume dandelions, they also make a nice musical instrument, Blair said.
“I make flutes out of the stems,” she said, “and they sound like a kazoo. You need to find one with a really tall stem, kind of later in the season, and take off the flower. Then you can cut holes for your fingers.”
Blame the kids
Since the early 1900s, when the Reading Club of Durango had a program on dealing with the “new yellow horde,” Durangoans have battled the intruder in their lawns and gardens.
Darrin Parmenter, horticulturist with the La Plata County Office of the Colorado State University Service, doesn’t want to be the bad guy when it comes to dandelions, but he does have some tips for managing them in a lawn.
“We would never consider dandelions an invasive or noxious weed,” he said. “They’re more a nuisance weed than anything else. That doesn’t mean they’re not a challenge for some people.”
One of the first challenges with dandelions is their early start, he said.
“They go to flower and to seed relatively early,” he said. “Right now, they’ve already gone to seed in some places because they’re a really early winter annual. They’re prolific seeders with the potential to be perennials or at least biannuals.”
The key is to get them before they go to seed, and not to cut them but dig up the taproot, Parmenter said.
“The bigger ones are harder to get out, too,” he said, “but getting as much of that plant out as possible is your goal. The root serves a purpose, it’s a carbohydrate storage unit. If you leave some, the dandelion will come back, but when it comes back, the plant will be more stressed.”
The ultimate goal, he said, is to exhaust the carbohydrate storage capacity of the root.
The good news is that, in general, grass or turf can outcompete dandelions.
“Weeds in general like disturbed or out-of-the-way places,” Parmenter said. “That’s why you’ll see a dandelion in a sidewalk crack. They’ve evolved to do that, but you won’t see a flower or a bulb there because they haven’t.”
In the end, the biggest challenge to lawn purists may not be the wind, but the children who love watching those seeds waft away after a good puff. According to the University of Wisconsin Weed Science Extension page, each flower generates between 54 and 172 seeds, with each plant generating up to 2,000 seeds.
“Even as a kid who blows them out, you kind of thought, ‘That’s a lot of seeds I just spread,’” Parmenter said with a laugh. “Children are definitely the ones at fault.”