Dandelions… weeds or wildflowers?

Dandelion seed head

Somewhere on the journey from childhood to gardener, there’s a point where certain flowers lose their innocence and become unwelcome residents in the garden. Dandelions are definitely one of these flowers. While at one time it was fun to blow gently on a dandelion clock and watch the soft, parachute-like seeds being carried gently away, now there’s just anguish in knowing how many new plants will need to be dug up in the coming months. And digging them up can take some doing, with their long tap roots stretching deep into the soil. But beyond being garden weeds, dandelions have a long history of medicinal use. And, as wildflowers rather than weeds, they support native wildlife – providing a valuable source of nectar for bees in the spring, and seeds for birds through the summer. So maybe it’s time to start not just tolerating, but enjoying the dandelions in our gardens.

If it weren’t for their habit of producing ridiculous amounts of seed, dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) might be much more popular. The bright, golden yellow flowers bring cheery colour early in the gardening year. It’s a plant that grows happily in fields, road verges, on waste ground and in gardens. With seeds that carry on the slightest breeze, and the ability to regrow from any small pieces of root left in the ground, the dandelion is successful in colonising pretty much anywhere. This means that it is regularly listed in ‘top tens’ of garden weeds, and features in adverts promoting herbicides.

But dandelions have good points too. Each flower is in fact a cluster of individual flowers, or florets. They produce generous amounts of nectar and pollen which attracts a wide range of insects to the flowers. Bees especially love dandelions, but they also feed butterflies, hoverflies and beetles. Their value as a forage plant begins early in spring, when the first flowers appear just as hibernating bees begin to emerge and search for food. The plants continue to produce flowers right through to autumn, providing an almost continuous nectar supply. The seeds also make a great food source for small birds – goldfinches and sparrows will feast on the ripe seed heads.

If its wildlife value isn’t enough, there are the plant’s culinary uses too. The tender young leaves can be added to salads, bringing a slightly bitter contrast to mild lettuces and gently flavoured spring herbs. Or boiled and drained, before tossing them with a little butter, nutmeg and garlic. The bitterness of the leaves is something of an acquired taste, but the plant is packed with vitamin C, vitamin K, iron, calcium, fibre and the antioxidant carotenoid. They are also delicious sautéed in a little olive oil with some garlic, sea salt and chilli flakes. Or added to soups for flavour and extra nutritional value. And the brash yellow flowers can be used to make a floral wine.

Then there are the medicinal properties which have long been exploited for treating a range of health issues, including liver problems and kidney disease, skin and stomach problems. The genus name Taraxacum is said to be derived from the Greek – taraxos meaning disorder, and akos meaning remedy, reflecting the plants medicinal value. Dandelions act as a mild laxative and help promote healthy digestion. As a diuretic, dandelions aid in kidney function – they increase urine production, which removes salts and excess water from the body. They have a positive effect on liver function too, aiding in toxin removal and ensuring a balance of electrolytes. The leaves can also stimulate the release of bile, which helps in the digestion of fatty foods, and they are said to help guard against the development of gallstones.

And one final reason for growing dandelions… especially if you’re planning on getting married soon. The flowers are said to bring good luck to a newly married couple when they’re included in the bridal bouquet.

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