The garden gold rush

Dandelions have been around forever and can actually be quit useful

I

t’s the season of the gold rush and what yard is without a sample of that mother lode – the dandelion?

Before the European colonization of North America, the continent was all but weed free, if you consider a weed to be a plant in the wrong place. It’s hard to imagine our landscape without daisies, dandelions, crabgrass or buttercups, but not one of these species grew here before the landing of the Pilgrims (with or without John Wayne).

Weeds are the ultimate opportunists, and their golden opportunities are patches of disturbed land where they can hunker down and in no time at all overrun the native plants. In other words, no plows, no weeds.

Some weeds were imported by design as a food source, others came as hitchhikers. The dandelion was purposely brought to the New World for its multiple uses in settlers’ pantries. The young leaves were prized as salad greens full of Vitamin C; the flower heads were used, and still are, to make wine; and the roots were dried and ground for the morning coffee.

In most people’s books, dandelions are capital W weeds, yet it’s hard not to welcome their sunny yellow faces when they first appear in the spring. It’s even been suggested that the robust golden dandelion should be the flower of Easter and rebirth, rather than the pale and fragile lily. The common dandelion, (Tarazacum officinale) comes by its common name through a French description of its sharply notched leaves — “le dent-de-lion” or teeth of the lion.

Whether or not we like the connection, the dandelion is a member of the sunflower family, and an interesting aside on that giant of our gardens and favorite of the birds, is that the sunflower gang is the largest plant family in the world.

Spaniards took seeds of the common North American sunflower back to Europe where the seeds made their way to Russia. Here they were bred for larger seeds and higher oil content and the Mammoth Russian sunflower was introduced in the U.S.

If the dandelion had somehow managed to get itself nursery-bred, it would no doubt be an easy-growing, all-season favorite with gardeners, and we’d have more gold in our lives than Midas. Alas, the dandelion was labeled with weed status, and as such we are doomed to try to eradicate it.

If we’re waging war on this invasive weed, we should at least give the enemy the respect it deserves. The dandelion is self-fertilizing, so it needs no help there. It’s root is long and tapering and tenacious; seldom will you get it all with the most hefty yank, and every bit of root left in the ground is capable of sending up a new plant.

 

Then there are its parachute-born fruits, which can stay aloft indefinitely while the relative humidity is less than 70 per cent, which means that when humidity rises, often just before a rain, the seeds come to earth, ready to soak up the moisture and renew the family line.

 

 

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