Dandelions more than just weeds

By Candace Nelson - 11:00 AM

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Here's my latest column in the Charleston Gazette-Mail:

Those bright pops of yellow that spring up on a summer lawn are more than just weeds indicating that the grass is a day or two past its prime.

Dandelions, named for their sharply toothed leaves (a version of the French phrase “dent de lion,” which means “lion’s tooth”), offer much more in the way of culinary and herbal value.

The flower belongs to the genus Taraxacum, which can be found all over North America. The common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) was introduced into North America hundreds of years ago from Europe for a variety of reasons: The young greens are delicious and healthy with high amount of Vitamins A, B, C, E and K, in addition to calcium, iron, manganese, magnesium and potassium.

Dandelions play a large role in a number of herbal medicines. The dandelion, which now propagates as a wildflower, also provides a nectar source for a wide variety of pollinators especially early in the season: honeybees, butterflies, moths and nearly 100 more species of insects. Plus, the leaves and seeds feed birds, chipmunks and other wildlife. That’s because dandelions are edible from root to flower.

Dandelions are often described as having an earthy, nutty, and slightly bitter taste. The perennial herb’s root is a relative of chicory and can be dried, roasted and used for coffee. That same root can also be peeled and cooked like a vegetable. The greens are perfect for a salad or for pesto. Roots, leaves and stems can all be brewed to make tea. The blossoms can even be dredged and deep-fried like squash blossoms for a special treat.

So, with all these positive attributes — is the dandelion a weed? Or a flower? It depends on who you ask — and where it’s growing.

A weed is a wild plant growing where it is not wanted and competing with cultivated plants. A flower is the part of the plant often brightly colored at the end of the stem and survives for just a short period of time. While the dandelion doesn’t appear on the USDA’s Federal Noxious Weed List, most people don’t want them in their carefully manicured gardens or competing with surrounding plants that can affect the local ecosystem. The hardy plants grow well in most soil types and have a high tolerance for nutrient-poor soil, as well.

Our ancestors may have seen dandelions as an invaluable flower that could provide food, medicine and help the local honeybees, whereas most people today aren’t foraging for their food and instead find the ferocious grower a pest. The dandelion maintains those steadfast and hardy characteristics that are emblematic of Appalachia. They bloom even when the environment is tough and are resilient even when some may not want them to be so.

Whether you wish for the dandelions to rise to their respected position in the flower chain or to disappear from your lawn altogether, you can do so with a big exhale on a dandelion puffball.

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