Should we dread the dandelion?

They are pretty. They are bright. They are edible. Indeed, they are extremely nutritious, and have been used medicinally for centuries. So why do we hate them so much?

Officially, in Saskatchewan anyway, dandelions are a nuisance, but they are not noxious. If they were officially noxious, we'd all be obliged to destroy them whenever we found them on property we occupy, like kochia and leafy spurge. After all, Section 13 (1) of the Noxious Weed Act states: "Every owner or occupant of land shall destroy noxious weeds on his land and prevent the spread of noxious weeds to other lands."

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Officially, we aren't obliged to destroy them, but unofficially? Dandelions! Aaargh! Kill them!

It may be so that dandelions in an agricultural crop are, at the least, unhelpful, and at the worst, interfere with growth and yield (especially legume crops). But from a residential point of view, perhaps it's not the sight of the vivacious plants poking up here, there and everywhere that bothers us so much, but the connotation of what we think that means.

Could it be that having dandelions in our lawn suggests we may not be fastidious enough in our yard care?

You'd have to be pretty darn fastidious indeed to never have one of those little yellow rascals in your yard - especially if your neighbour has them.

The Saskatchewan Environmental Society suggests the presence of dandelions indicate compacted soil, an excess in potassium and a deficiency in calcium. So it would seem dandelions grow in less than ideal "lawn" conditions. It must then mean, by extrapolation, if our lawns have dandelions, then our lawns are less than "ideal." Shame on us!

But does not the tap-rooted Taraxacum officinale have its agreeable side, too?

Firstly, the tap root itself delves deep into the soil and brings up nutrients and minerals more shallow rooted plants would never be able to reach, including nitrogen and copper. In this way, it plays a role in soil restoration as the nutrients in the leaves are released back into the soil when they die. (Perhaps the dandelion feels the lawn is a crop with no edible yield or particularly useful purpose, therefore putting it in a category of land that needs to be reclaimed.) They are also effective against other invasive plants.

If you don't have dandelions, you might have something worse. (Unfortunately, dandelions release ethylene gas as they grow, which can inhibit the growth of nearby plants, On the up side, however, ethylene gas speeds up the ripening of fruit, so can a few dandelions in the orchard be a bad thing?)

Dandelions aren't always unloved by everybody. Those bright yellow flowers are hugely attractive to honey bees. The season's first crop of honey often relies on the first flowering of dandelions. Although it can be argued they distract bees from other plants needing pollination, a few dandelions in your flower garden can do more good than harm when it comes to attracting insects.

Perhaps the dandelion's most profound saving grace is that both the leaves and the roots of the dandelion are edible, and extracts from the plant can be used as flavourings.

The leaves are rich in vitamins A and C, thiamine and riboflavin, and minerals such as iron, copper, silicon, magnesium, zinc and manganese. There is more B-carotene in dandelion leaves than in carrots. Many sources say dandelion leaves are made up of 15 per cent protein, and that a cup of dandelion greens contains 112 per cent of the daily recommendation of vitamin A, 32 per cent of vitamin C and 535 per cent of vitamin K, 218 mg potassium, 103 mg calcium and 1.7 mg iron.

They are popular as salad greens, as a more nutritious choice than lettuce in a sandwich, added to soups and stews, not to mention used in smoothies or even juiced.

Not interested in nutritional benefits of dandelions? How about the alcoholic effects. The blossoms can be used to make dandelion wine.

Other beverages a dandelion might produce include a coffee substitute made of the root, roasted and ground.

Of course, there's the ever popular dandelion tea, said to fulfill medicinal uses such as increasing heart health and aiding liver function, not to mention relieving bloat, headaches, cramps, backaches, stomach aches, diarhea, skin disorders, inflammation and depression. There are even studies going on at this very moment in which dandelion roots may lead to a new treatment for cancer.

The medicinal properties of dandelions are no doubt the reason they grow here in the first place. While there are some native dandelions, which the Native American population used for various ailments, the common dandelion that has become the king of North American weeds was probably brought here from Europe by colonists who valued their use. In fact, in France, they are still commercially grown. They've been known for their medicinal values throughout the Orient as well.

One last point in the dandelion's defence: they are safe for kids to handle (unless they are allergic to the milky content of the stem). Let's face it, kids love dandelions. They love to pick them and present them as bouquets, they love to tuck the bright flowers behind their ears , weave chains of them, and (less positively if you don't want to spread them around) they love to blow the seeds off the stalks. No child is going to point to a perfectly smooth green lawn and say, "How pretty!" They most probably will, however, when they see a sea of bright yellow dandelions.

Whatever ones's feelings are about dandelions - good, bad or ugly - the accepted notion is that dandelions are weeds and weeds must be done away with. So, if you are serious about getting rid of your dandelions, here's what Keith Anderson, City of North Battleford Parks and Recreation Director, has to say about the science:

"If you spray dandelions when they are yellow and in flower, you are wasting your money. All broadleaf herbicides for use on turf or lawn grass are growth regulator hormones. That means that the herbicide causes the dandelion to grow vigorously and exhausts the stored reserves in the roots causing death. If you see yellow and spray, you speed up the growth of the dandelion causing it to go to seed within 24 hours. Every seed is viable. By spraying when the dandelions are yellow, you actually increased the dandelion population in your lawn and neighbourhood.

"This is not an urban legend (cue scary music) this is the science of growth regulator herbicides. If you want to get good dandelion control, apply broadleaf herbicides according to label instructions, from mid-August to mid-September before the killing frosts."

North Battleford, says Anderson, is one of the few cities left that does dandelion control. It's not possible to do the whole city each fall, but the places that were reared last year are contrastingly clear of dandelions, he says.

Battleford also sprays its property for dandelions, says Randy Redding, superintendent of parks and recreation for the Town of Battleford. They spread too fast and tend to take over, he says.

"They are not my favourite flower," says Redding.

© Copyright Battlefords News Optimist