Monday, February 22, 2016

Don't Dig Those Dandelions?!

Many of us conduct certain rituals in our yards and gardens without questioning why; not the least of these is "weeding." We are taught to despise any plant that volunteers itself in the flowerbed or the lawn. We are conditioned to uphold certain standards, and look to the marketplace for products to help us with that. Fortunately, the tide may be changing. Take dandelions for example.

© Marc Keelan-Bishop

I was surprised and delighted to see this meme pop up in Facebook recently, daring to suggest that we should be lazy(?!) in our approach to the inevitable blooming of dandelions.

Jewel beetle, Anthaxia sp.

In my own experience, especially in the western United States, I can vouch for the fact that a startling variety of insects exploit dandelions in early spring when few other flowers are in bloom. Birders will be pleased to know that Lesser Goldfinches and House Sparrows, at the least, feed on the seeds.

Checkered Skipper
Variegated Fritillary
Painted Lady

Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, is an introduced species in North America, presumably brought here by European settlers in the 1600s as a food crop. Indeed, the Common Dandelion has much to recommend it in nutritional value, and herbal medicine. The greens can be eaten raw, while older leaves are best if cooked. You can brew dandelion wine; and the roots, when baked and ground, make a decent coffee substitute. The diuretic properties of the plant are well-known.

Andrena mining bee, © Elaine Mansfield
Sweat bee, Lasioglossum sp.
Sweat bee, Halictus sp.

Meanwhile, bees of all stripes take advantage of the dandelion's robust nectar and pollen supplies, and early-blooming schedule when few native plants are yet in flower. Indeed, dandelions bloom throughout the warmer months, filling voids in natural bloom cycles between spring, summer, and fall peaks.

Celery Looper Moth
Melipotis moth, Melipotis sp.

Our disdain for dandelions seems to be of a cosmetic nature, and a reminder that we are not the masters of Nature, even in our own backyard. Consequently, we turn to herbicides, which only compound our problems by killing other, desirable plants, and contaminating groundwater and streams, rivers, and lakes.

Cutworm Hunter wasp, Podalonia sp.
European Paper Wasp

Ironically, it has been demonstrated that even if you mow dandelions, they will "learn" to grow shorter, flowering at a height just beneath the lawnmower blades. Might as well learn to live with them. Just tell your guests that you still have a green thumb, but you are also promoting biodiversity.

Sources: Bradbury, Kate. 2015. "Let dandelions Grow. Bees, beetles, and birds need them," The Guardian.
Wunder, Michael. 2015. "City spares dandelions to help pollinators," The Waverly News (Nebraska, USA).

Flower fly, family Syrphidae
Yellow Dung Fly, a predator
Tachinid fly, a parasite of pest caterpillars


  1. I love this post! It's one thing to say that dandelion flowers are important to insects - especially in the spring - but you demonstrated it so well with all those photos!

  2. And not just the dandelions. Let the Henbit, Violets, Toadflax, Geraniums, etc go as well. They're all great spring food for the pollinators.

  3. Great article and I shared it! It is a battle with some to just leave them be.

  4. I have a recipe for dandelion meade (made with honey) which is wonderful. It must age at least 1 year, even better at 2 or more years. Definitely a worthy plant.

  5. Bravo! I too am an admirer of dandelions. I like to go on a bit about their many benefits and clever adaptations for survival. For example, they can clone themselves into their seeds so they do not always require being pollinated.

  6. Can't support the spread of an alien invasive species. Dandelion has no value to leaf eating insects (there are about 13,000 butterfly/moth species compared to 4,000 bees). If you really want to help pollinators, dig deeper into ecological relationships. Understand that dandelions take pollinators away from native plants along with 100s of other non native introduced plants. Without pollination, the native plants that allow co-evolved caterpillars and other insects to eat their leaves quietly vanish. What is needed is less lawn (I hope we all agree there), and more kinds of native plants through the year, rather than those that will escape your lawn and go other places to occupy ground needed by natives. What makes where you live unique in terms of its animals and birds is its plants. So learn about your native ground and support that. You will be blown away at each bird that shows up, and each butterfly. Dandelions are beautiful, it is true...where they are a useful part of the ecology. Some species use it here, this is true, but you can do better and discover that you have amazing and beautiful plants that bring amazing and beautiful animal diversity. For a cool videos based on science, go to You Tube and look for the very entertaining and eye opening lectures by Doug Tallamy. He is an entomologist who will blow your mind in a way that you can see how you can do some REAL good for the world rather than spread one plant around that is not really helping as much as we would like to believe.


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