Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Battling Dandelions in the Adirondack Lawn

Eventually, every naturalist writes a piece about dandelions, those golden discs of sunshine that dot our lawns, raid our gardens, and provide hours of entertainment for children and frustration for adults. The time has come for me to write mine.

The dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, is, quite frankly, an alien invasive. And like many invasives, it has done quite well on our side of the pond. But we really should consider all aspects of this plant before we make any judgments.

First, let’s contemplate its health benefits. This lowly plant chocked full of more vitamin A than you can shake a stick at. It’s also loaded with vitamins C, D, K and B-complex, iron, protein, thiamin, riboflavin, calcium, and potassium. One is hardly surprised, then, that historically travelers to the far reaches of the world tucked away seed from this hardy little plant to be sure they had it available wherever they wound up.

At a time when grocery stores did not exist, people living where winter had a good long grip often found themselves pretty hard up come February. There were difficult times ahead because stored food was gone, game was scarce, and the animals they could find were often pretty scrawny. Sickness threatened from every side: colds, scurvy, rickets. So it’s not hard to see why this humble little plant, which starts to photosynthesize even beneath a blanket of snow, was eagerly sought by the hungry and sick alike. Some scientists believe that many of the people who died in late winter/early spring could’ve avoided this terminal condition if only they weren’t malnourished. Those who were able to acquire a supply of dandelion leaves made remarkable recoveries. Who wouldn’t, therefore, bring this plant wherever he went? It was (and still is) the ultimate cure-all.

As we know, this plant, with a very human-like trait, jumped the garden wall and set out to colonize its new home without looking back. Wherever man went, so went this humble harbinger of spring, for it thrived where forests were opened up and soils were disturbed. Unlike many other invasives, dandelions can only get a toehold where man has made the environment appealing. Forests, shrubby areas, and fields of tall grass are no place for the dandelion. Parking lots, suburban lawns, ball fields, construction sites – ah, now these are perfect habitats for this seral species.

Seral species are pioneers, hardy souls that thrive in areas of disaster. When we look at our lawns, they are, from Nature’s point of view, sites of on-going disaster, where natural succession is kept at bay by numerous mowings and chemical warfare. It’s no wonder that dandelions thrive here. Every time we mow, the plants that would grow and shade out the “weeds” are cut back, giving those same “weeds” access to the sun they so crave. Then we add herbicides and pesticides. Only the toughest plants can survive such harsh conditions – tough plants like the dandelion.

So then we attack them with knives and torches, tools with names like Dragon and Killer. I watch our local clergyman out on his greensward almost every evening using his pocket knife to cut the dandelions off at their knees. The thing is, though, that most of the plant is below ground. Dandelions have enormous root systems. Not only do shallow roots thread their way horizontally through the soil, but that big old tap root is thrusting its way downward, as if trying to reach China. Industrious and curious botanists have carefully dug up entire dandelion root systems, finding that the pits they dig may have to reach fifteen feet in depth before the end of the root is discovered. That’s one impressive plant.

But most of us don’t want to dig such pits in our yards to remove the dandelions, so we grab hold and give them a yank, or we do like the priest and just cut off the visible part. Ah, but herein lies the problem, for now we have created slew of broken roots that will each produce a new plant. Yes, where you once had one, you will now have two, or three, or ten dandelions. Take my word for this. About four years ago I used my handy dandelion extractor to try and get the plants under control. I cleared a fairly good-sized patch of lawn outside my back door. Today that same patch is almost solid dandelions. Where I removed maybe a hundred plants, five hundred have replaced them.

If you really want to combat your dandelions (and other lawn “weeds”), the most successful strategy is to let the grass grow. I know, this goes against the grain for most people, but putting your mower on its highest setting and cutting your grass to only three or four inches will result in a shadier lawn, which will discourage dandelions and other seral species. If the habitat isn’t harsh and disturbed, the seral plants will not grow.

But here’s something else to consider: over a hundred species of critters (mostly insects) benefit from the presence of dandelions. Bees, flies, butterflies…in areas where solid green lawns dominate and flowers are few and far between, these beneficial insects have a hard time finding a meal. A truly healthy lawn is one that contains a diversity of plants, which in turn encourages a diversity of insects (and other invertebrates beneath the soil).

I have decided that my neighbors can scowl all they want at my lawn with its dandelions, cinquefoil, strawberries, heal-all, violas, buttercups, pussytoes and hawkweed. My lawn is a richly diverse habitat that attracts insects and birds in great quantity, and while part of me likes the idea of running barefoot through a plush shag-carpet of grass, the nature nut in me gets a lot more pleasure out of getting down on my belly and watching the flowers and all their winged visitors.

And speaking of watching the flowers, have you ever really looked at a dandelion up close? Each “petal” is actually an entire flower. The yellow strap (“petal”) forms a tube, at the base of which is a pool of rich nectar. Rising up from the base is a Y-shaped structure, which is the pistil, or female part of the plant. The male, or pollen-producing, parts are a fused tube at the base of the pistil. Each of these flowers, and there are about 200 on the whole flower head, is arranged with its brethren in concentric circles, forming a bulls-eye that bees (and other insects) see in an ultraviolet spectrum invisible to our human eyes.

Finally, we have to love dandelions for their various names. I’m partial to swine snout, a reference to how the flower head looks when it closes up. Another great one is piss-a-beds, which refers to just how great a diuretic the dandelion is. How about priest’s head – that’s what the flower head looks like once the seeds have been blown away: a bald pate with a fringe of hairs (the sepals) at the edge.

Whether you love them or hate them, please give the dandelion its due consideration when you see it in your yard. Do you really have to get rid of it? As aliens go, it really isn’t so bad, and it has so many great rewards, for humans and wildlife alike. And just think, instead of buying dandelion greens in the grocery store for $5/pound, or dandelion “coffee” at the health food store for $35/pound, you can harvest them for free out back – and leave a few for the birds and the bees to enjoy. Sounds like a great compromise to me.

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Ellen Rathbone

Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.





3 Responses

  1. Woodswalker says:

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