Ode to the dandelion: why this vilified weed is one of the adaptable garden plants

Picture of Paul Cappiello Ph.D.

Paul Cappiello Ph.D.

Yew Dell Botanical Gardens Executive Director

A tougher plant will never be
     Seen by you or seen by me.
With golden halo’d Spring hello
     And big ‘ol fleshy roots below.

It pops up here, it pops up there,
     in lawns and cracks and everywhere.
From boil’d greens to wine from leaves,
     why, those golden orbs even service the bees!

And when its sunny side goes by,
     It’s seeds of silk do grace the sky.
By wind or rain or skipping child
     Its little kin go grace the wild.

Now, you think as gardeners we’d be in awe,
     of vim and vigor . . . performance galore.
But wrong you’d be o’er hill and dale,
     ‘casue most call  it the beast from hale.

We pull it and spray it and curse it by name,
     But back it comes . . . again and again.
This little plant, that can and could,
     A Darwinian marvel, just misunderstood.

 

When I worked at the University of Maine, the Forestry Department was in the building right across the street from my office window. And on the south side of that dark-stained wooden structure – all warm and cozy this time of year – the very first blooms on campus would appear. Not magnolias or forsythia or even the ‘Bradford’ pears, but a little patch of dandelions would make first flower appearance year after year. 

Not that these dandelions were in a great spot. The soil was a horrible mix of clay and construction rubble. And not that the campus landscape crew didn’t do their best each year to spray the life force out of the little devils. They did, to be sure. But back they came every year, pressed right up against that warm concrete foundation with the brown wood siding radiating all kinds of thermal energy. 

In short, this was quite simply a perfect example of right plant, right place. After all, what else would survive there?

The common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is a Eurasian native gift to most of the northern hemisphere. It grows in moist meadows where it does in the wild what it does in our yards and gardens. It finds a spot where little else will grow – or even a spot where something else is growing – and springs forth with its bright golden flowers followed by fluffy seed heads. 

Common dandelion (the word “dandelion” coming from the French for lion’s tooth – a reference to the deeply incised leaves) is a member of the aster family. And depending on which botanist you happen to follow this week, there are anywhere between 60 and about 2000 species on the planet! You see dandelions are what’s called, apomictic. That means their flowers often set seeds without pollination. And seeds set from a single apomictic mother plant are all clones (no daddy pollen) of one another and their mother. And as those clonal populations grow, they develop into what plant taxonomists trying to get tenure call micro-species. (Please, taxonomists and families of taxonomists out there – no hate mail, please. Some of my best friends are taxonomists . . . really . . .)

But aside from the amazing cultural adaptability and the gee-wiz-iness of the apomictic thing, there’s another amazing thing about dandelions. You can actually watch Darwinian evolution happen right before your eyes. The common dandelion has a flower stalk that usually measures about 15” top to bottom. Those juicy, hollow wands are perfect handles for children running across the lawn and spreading seeds to your perfect, putting-green carpet of (mostly) grass. Nice image. But what’s so cool about that? 

Well here’s  a simple question. If the flower stalks are usually a foot or more long, where do those plants come from that sprout those annoying flowers an inch or two off the ground – just barely under the lawn mower’s blade? Dandelions don’t do this in the wild. 

According to the National Turfgrass Research Initiative, Americans maintain something like 50 million acres of turf, making it the 4th largest crop in the country. And with billions and billions (dare say, trillions or even the dreaded, gazillions?) of dandelion seeds floating around the US, there are bound to be a few spontaneous genetic variations that result in a shorter flower stalk. Talk about Darwinian selection pressure . . . If those variants with 1” long flower stalks are preferentially preserved and allowed to scrape by under the mower’s blade, guess which ones will be around 3 days later to spread their seeds? Voila’! Instant evolution. 

Sure, dandelion, in North America, is an exotic plant. But does it really meet the definition of, invasive? Does it actively crowd out other native species the way, say, Amur Honeysuckle does in and around Louisville? Not really. At least not most of the time. The most significant thing it crowds out in my neighborhood is some of our fancy Kentucky bluegrass which, by the way, ain’t native to My Old Kentucky Home or anywhere else on this side of the Atlantic Ocean! 

The beast from Hale . . . I think not. Let’s, at least for a moment, marvel at this Darwinian bundle of vigor and vim.

This article was originally submitted to the Courier Journal on March 1, 2022.

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Blurb about Paul here.

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