Dandelions are a lawn weed today, but it wasn’t always this way. The hardy, edible herb was been used medicinally from ancient times. In this article, we’ll give you some reasons to appreciate the formerly well-loved dandelion – along with tips on how to keep them off your lawn!
Dandelions are considered weeds by many lawn owners because they are hard to eradicate and multiply in the well-drained, sunlit soil that grass prefers. Yet this much-maligned plant is nutritious, medicinal, fully edible, and has many other uses. Thick, healthy turf is the best means of control.
Overview: Are Dandelions Weeds?
Dandelions are one of the most recognizable plants in the world … whether that’s for better or worse depends upon who you ask. Many lawn owners regard it as a virulent weed.
But that isn’t how our ancestors thought of dandelions! Before lawns were a thing, the dandelion was highly valued. The stalwart plant was named ‘Lion’s Tooth’ for its saw-toothed leaves and also its robust reputation as a medicinal herb, tasty salad, and maker of sweet wine. Early colonialists brought dandelions to America and they quickly wafted from sea to shining sea.
Dandelions are one of the first sights of new greenery after a cold winter. Best of all, the dandelion’s bright yellow flowers turn into white puffs of fluffy seeds which magically grant wishes if blown upon hard enough to scatter them across your parent’s lawn.
The objection to dandelions comes from the bold way they show up on our lawns. The hard truth is that dandelions are a bit more competitive than grass in the sunny, well-drained conditions both plants love. Dandelions also thrive on high-nitrogen fertilizer and love being watered frequently.
The good news is that well-established turf is formidable too! A thick, healthy lawn isn’t in danger of being overrun.
Fighting dandelions is a long-term struggle, so it’s important to know your adversary. At the least, knowing the plant is 100% edible and nutritious could give you another reason to enjoy pulling them out of the ground.
Dandelions are hardy and long-lived broadleaf perennials. It grows in most soils, especially those rich in nitrogen and potassium; however, dandelions don’t appreciate soil heavy in phosphorus. They love sunshine and falter in the shade.
Their narrow, jagged leaves are smooth; they grow outward and close to the ground. Since there are over 250 species of dandelions, growth patterns and characteristics can vary. They’re members of the daisy family: cousins to marigolds, zinnias, chrysanthemums, and dahlias. They are distantly related to lettuce and artichokes.
Dandelions have hollow stems that contain milky-white latex fluid that can irritate the skin. The flower and subsequent seed pompom, the pappus, are typically mounted on a tall and highly visible spike. The spikes start to shorten if mowed regularly – eventually, the diabolical plant will “learn” to open its flowers at ground level to avoid mower blades.
The roots are one of the plant’s strong points, literally. They put down long, sturdy taproots that can reach a nightmarish 15 feet below the surface. If even part of the root is left in the ground, it may soon grow into another plant.
Resistance isn’t completely futile – we’ll get to that – but it isn’t easy. Even if you eradicate the plant from your yard, the seeds can drift for miles in the breeze. There are from 150 to 200 seeds per flower puffball, and these weed paratroopers are ready to sprout immediately.
Are Dandelions Weeds?
Of Course Dandelions are Weeds
The term “weed” isn’t scientific. Even a highly prized Instagram plant celebrity is a weed if it shows up unwanted on your lawn. The dandelion’s unkempt sprawl of toothed leaves and puffballs not only disrupts the smooth uniformity of turf but may seem like an advertisement that the lawn isn’t properly cared for.
There are a lot of reasons to hate dandelions. They spring out of nowhere overnight and quickly move from flower to loaded seed-puff if you don’t reach the mower in time. It takes effort and expense to pull or poison them, and they simply grow back most of the time. They bully thin grass and crowd out weak patches.
There’s a reason commercial herbicides feature a dandelion on the bottle: It’s a weed.
No! They’re Only Misunderstood
Dandelions are little dollops of sunshine that pack more nutrition in their edible leaves than do most store-bought veggies. Their whimsical seed-puffs spark joy and childhood memories.
This action-packed plant is actually classified as an herb by botanists. It’s been eaten for centuries as a healthful food or drink and has a surprising number of medicinal uses. In the old days, people sensibly tossed out grass – a comparatively worthless plant – to make way for dandelions.
In spite of its pervasiveness, dandelions are not officially listed as invasive plants … they are certainly not noxious weeds! Yes, dandelions spread quickly – but they give back.
The dandelion’s strong, deep root system helps open compacted ground and aerates topsoil. The roots bring up nutrients to the surface that are buried too deep for most plants to reach. Dandelions have proven useful for limiting soil erosion, too.
Why Do Dandelions Grow On My Lawn?
Even if dandelions are worthwhile plants in their own right, the question remains why they so persistently invade our carefully kept turf. We don’t see spinach or roses popping up overnight all over our lawn. Why can’t dandelions behave?
Unfortunately, our efforts to provide a perfect environment for grass to grow sets the banquet table for dandelion exuberance. The sunlit spaces we’ve so helpfully cleared are exactly right for a dandelion explosion.
The dandelion’s many uses puts lawn grass to shame. Here’s an overview:
Dandelions are demanding new respect as a lifeline to bees and other pollinators. Dandelions are one of the first flowers to bloom in spring, and their nectar helps tide over hungry pollinators until the big rush of spring flowers. (Consider letting its early spring flowers bloom to help out a beleaguered bee.)
Other wildlife like birds and chipmunks feed off the dandelion’s leaves and seeds, too. There’s even something for hummingbirds, which use the dandelion’s soft, puffy down to line their tiny nests.
From its roots to the spiky leaves and flowers, a dandelion is completely edible – and very nutritious, too! The only precaution is to harvest plants away from traffic pollution or applications of pesticides and/or herbicides.
- Dandelion greens have double the amount of iron and vitamins A and C that spinach does. They are a significant source of vitamin K and calcium, too. The leaves have a spicy taste not unlike arugula. The foliage is tender in the spring and becomes increasingly bitter with age: old leaves taste better if sautéed.
- Dandelion flowers can be added to salads; they also make a nice garnish. There are recipes for dandelion flower jelly and syrups that taste similar to honey but aren’t quite as sweet.
- Sweet wine can be fermented from the flowers. If you start during the summer, the wine will be ready for the cold months.
- Coffee made from roasted dandelion roots look and taste like the regular type, but its brew is sweeter, lighter, and caffeine-free. Don’t grind the roots – just cut them in pieces and roast at 400ºF (204Cº) for about 30 minutes until they’re dry and toasted brown.
Dandelion Cookies, Blossom Cake, Flower Fritters, Dandelion Pesto, Cream of Dandelion Soup – there is a surprising assortment of dandelion recipes to explore.
Dandelions have been used for centuries as little medicine chests. The plant has been used for asthma, ulcers, gallstones, stomach upset, diabetes, low blood pressure, heartburn, constipation, and skin problems. Healthful properties are still being discovered (or evidence is being found that verifies old claims).
Dandelion coffee is a diuretic and a detoxifying liver cleanser. It promotes a balance of electrolytes and increases bile production, helping to heal jaundice and also retard bacterial growth in the urinary system.
One good thing, if you’re thinking of switching to dandelion coffee, is that it contains potassium. Unlike most diuretics, it doesn’t just flush potassium out of your system but replaces it with more.
The roots can also be brewed into a medicinal tea for mild digestive complaints and bloating.
- Cosmetics – Oddly, considering the sap’s potential for skin irritation, dandelion paste has both anti-itching and anti-inflammatory effects. It has been used for centuries in moisturizing lip balms and lotions.
- Salve – Dandelion ointment has pain-relieving properties and can reduce inflammation. It’s a time-honored salve for easing sore muscles and cuts, bites, scrapes, and burns.
- Dye – Dandelion roots can be made into a traditional dye. It reportedly turns magenta when used on wool mordanted with alum.
- Rubber – This one’s for those still not convinced dandelions are super-versatile wonder plants: their milky sap is being adapted into a modern source of rubber. This is important because industrial production is causing ever-increasing environmental destruction – for example, the once-hopeful rare bird wildlife sanctuary of Snoul in Cambodia was sacrificed to private industrial rubber production in 2018.
Though still in development, dandelion rubber promises advantages over traditional tropical resources. The plant is very low-maintenance and can be grown in colder northern climates close to major industrial centers. Dandelions can be harvested from spaces unsuited to agriculture, and their growth cycle is only a year, much shorter than other sources.
You may soon find yourself driving on dandelion tires…
Okay, so dandelions have good points – but they belong in an herb garden, not your lawn. Let’s look at ways to control them.
Lawn Care Practices
Careful mowing is the best and least invasive way to manage dandelions. Though you’ll have strays, dandelions don’t typically run riot over well-maintained, healthy turf.
It’s a three-part plan:
- Mow regularly to cut off dandelion flower stalks before they become irresistible seed dispensers.
- Don’t cut the grass short but grow it to the maximum recommended height. This generally means about three to four inches high. Taller grass shades the soil and makes it harder for dandelion sprouts to emerge.
- When you mow, leave the discharged clippings on the lawn. Remove the mower’s exhaust bag if necessary; you want the cuttings to be sprayed over the turf. The clipped grass will sink into the lawn and provide a light mulch that inhibits dandelion growth.
Water Less Frequently
Dandelions love regular light showers, so you can slow them down by cutting back. Limit your lawn to between one and one-and-a-half inches of water in one weekly session.
Pulling, Tilling & Weed-Poppers
Pull up dandelions for harvesting or in hopes of getting the taproot. The best pulling conditions are when the earth is soft and moist. Pull from the base.
Weed-popping involves a mechanical gadget that “pops” the weeds out of the ground. This can work with small dandelions in soft ground, but a mature taproot often breaks off and survives.
Plowing clears dandelions by chopping the roots four inches below the crown. If you want to get more extreme, disrupting the soil and burying the remaining root may be part of an effective treatment.
Success depends upon whether you actually remove enough of the taproot … also, there is a big hole left behind.
If you want to step up the attack, you can resort to chemical means. Apply carefully to avoid killing the surrounding grass.
Commercial solutions are divided into pre- and post-emergent treatments. Pre-emergents keep new dandelions from sprouting but won’t affect existing plants; post-emergents will kill mature dandelions. Use these synthetic products cautiously!
There’s no need to escalate to poisonous chemicals, however. There are many environmentally-friendly anti-dandelion treatments:
- Pour boiling water onto the crown, being careful not to scald the surrounding grass.
- Spray the plant with bleach, white vinegar, or apple cider vinegar.
- Mix an ounce of vodka and a few drops of ordinary dish soap in two cups of water. Spray on directly.
- Add corn gluten meal on the soil before the dandelions sprout.
- Sprinkle the plant with baking soda.
- Spray with WD-40.