Dandelions; understanding their role
Written by Adam Mohammed
Lets take a look at the dandelion, one of our most common 'weeds', and one of my favourite. Dandelions are a 'pioneer' species, experts at living in damaged areas and repairing the soil. They're the first step in the transformation of a damaged area back to a forest. Aside from being beautiful (I always thought that a field filled with yellow flowers was preferable over short cut green grass), they're useful in almost every way a plant can be. They improve the soil, they're edible, and medicinal.
How do they improve the soil? If you've ever wrestled with removing dandelions, you'll have noticed their single, large deep root, known as a 'tap root'. They get this name as this deep root 'taps' into the rich nutrient pockets in the deeper layers of the soil. This gives the dandelions a key competitive edge when colonizing damaged areas. As the plants surrounding it (such as grass, whose roots only reach a few inchs down) struggle to use the few nutrients available in the upper layers, which in the traditional post forest fire sense are very sparse, to the suburban scene, where the bulk of the soil is ripped away during development, the dandelion thrives. The tap roots brings up nutrients from the deep, stores them in it's leaves, and when it dies, deposits the nutrients on the surface, making them available to other plants without these deep roots (including our crops). Pretty useful! Much more useful than this 'grass' stuff everyone is obsessed with planting (quick fact – the concept of short grass being desirable came from England, where land was so valuable that to take a piece of it and not use it for food production was a mark of status and wealth). As a quick side note, grass has hardly any nutritional value, isn't medicinal, does nothing for the soil, and further, competes with trees.
Every part of the dandelion is edible. The yellow flowers make a tasty little snack, while the leaves have far more nutritionalcontent (including omega 3 and 6 fatty acids) than any leaf lettuce you'll find in a store. We've bred our leaf lettuces to be mild tasting, but with this, we've bred out a large amount of the nutrient content. Dandelion leaves can sometimes be bitter, especially the older ones. You can blanch them to make them more palatable, or if you have a large patch you'd like to eat, cover them with cardboard or plastic for a few days. They'll be much milder after this. If you're new to eating wild greens, the strong taste will take a bit of getting used to. Persevere, and soon you'll be seeing delicious snacks growing on the ground almost anywhere you go. The root can be ground up and used in the same way ground coffee beans are used, or added to coffee for flavouring, or cut up and steamed to soften it.
The medicinal qualities are plentiful. It's main use has been as a diuretic and liver/bloodstream purifier. In fact, it's French name literally means 'urinate in bed'. It stimulates production of bile, which can help break down gall stones. The milk in the stem can be used as a skin softner, and it has an antifungul agent which can help control yeast infections. As a tea, it has anti-inflammatory properties.
As we can see, dandelions are an extremely beneficial species. Why would you take grass over something that can improve your soil, can eat, use to heal yourself, attracts bees, and looks pretty? The idea here is that as we begin to see every plant for the niche it fills. As we start seeing the ways it can directly benefit us, we shift our thinking from a, “this is what I planted, this is the only thing that can grow” attitude to a more holistic view. This encompasses trying to understand our place in the larger system, and instead of hurting our bodies repetitively weeding, stopping and thinking first, “why is this plant growing here? What role is filling?”. And while we may still decide that it's not a good member of our garden eco system, with the understanding of why it's thriving in our system we can work instead to modify our design for long term low work soloutions (something I'll go into in future articles).