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Five facts about those delightful dandelions

Dandelions growing in the grass.
(Photo via Shutterstock)

Is there a plant in this world more maligned than the dandelion? Certainly not in the United States.

The most common "weed" in America is native to Eurasia, but it is now naturalized to all of North America, much to the chagrin of homeowners everywhere. Each spring, Americans declare war on dandelions, but the so-called weeds have an advantage, because they easily tolerate a wide range of soil and climate conditions, according to the University of Maine Extension, and offer an important food source for essential insects.

It wasn't until recently that the dandelion was declared an enemy. Until the 20th century, when manicured lawns became the norm, dandelions were just another plant in the landscape, not something to eradicate, according to Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners

Despite Americans' best efforts, the war on dandelions will probably never truly be won because weeds by their very nature tend to be difficult to tame. As Wisconsin newspaper columnist Doug Larson once wrote, "A weed is a plant that has mastered every survival skill except for learning how to grow in rows." 

Maybe instead of maligning dandelions, we should celebrate them for their omnipresence in our lives. That's the idea behind National Dandelion Day, celebrated on April 5. At the very least, growing to tolerate dandelions may be easier to accomplish than trying to obliterate them. 

One critical reason to tolerate them is that they actually provide an important food source for pollinating insects which are in serious decline. These pollinators propagate plants that both brighten the landscape and are essential to our food supply. Because dandelions are one of the plants to bloom each spring, their nectar feeds early insects when few other plants have yet produced nectar, according to University of Wisconsin Horticulture Division of Extension

If you need a little more help developing an appreciation for dandelions, here's five things you probably didn't know about them.

They actually help your lawn

Hard as it is to believe considering the time, energy and money devoted to obliterating dandelions from our yards, they are actually beneficial for your lawn. These so-called weeds have roots that spread widely underground, which has the beneficial effects of loosening hard-packed soil, aerating the ground and reducing erosion, according to Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners. Because their roots grow so deeply, they also help pull nutrients from deep within the soil up to ground level, which makes them more readily available to other plants, like your lawn, which has more shallow roots. In addition, dandelions also help fertilize the grass they grow in.

They're nutritious

Maybe you've heard of dandelion greens, but did you know these are one and the same as the dandelions that grow in your yard? The leafy greens of the dandelion plant are quite healthy, rich in vitamin A and vitamin B12, according to the Michigan State University Extension. Eating just 1 cup of the greens has twice as much iron as the same amount of spinach and contains more than 500 percent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin K. Dandelion roots and flowers are also edible, although they are not as commonly eaten as the greens. Common food uses for dandelions include using the greens in salad or sautéing them as you would other greens. Commercially, dandelion greens are sometimes sold in a mixture of greens called mesclun. 

A word of caution about harvesting your own dandelions to eat: Only pick greens from areas that you know with certainty have not been treated with chemicals such as herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers, and always wash all parts of the plant before preparing them, the Michigan State extension advises.

They have healing properties

For centuries, various parts of the dandelion plant have been used medicinally. They were long used to create tonics that people drank to help the liver remove toxins from their bloodstream, and dandelions have also been used to treat ailments ranging from warts to the plague, according to Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners. 

Among the ailments and conditions they were historically used to treat were lethargy, depression, fevers, rotting gums, sores, toothaches, baldness and dandruff. Centuries later, scientists learned dandelions were helpful in treating some of these conditions because they were caused by vitamin deficiencies. Even today, herbalists use dandelions to improve human health, because it both works as a natural diuretic and also helps our digestive systems function optimally. 

They can grow — and keep growing — just about anywhere

What is it about dandelions that make them so hard to get rid of? First off, they can take root almost anywhere, even popping up through cracks in sidewalks and in gravel and cement, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners reports. They grow, and even thrive, in otherwise barren landscapes where other plants can't seem to take root, and they are hardy and drought tolerant as well.

Dandelions are also fast-growing plants, and they live a long time. Both of these characteristics contribute to their success in conquering even inhospitable habitats. The roots of a dandelion plant continue growing downward through the years, reaching depths of up to 15 feet, and the root will clone itself when it is divided, growing even more dandelion plants.  

Dandelions are prolific seed producers, with each plant able to produce as many as 20,000 seeds, according to University of Wisconsin Horticulture Division of Extension. Those seeds, of course, are part of the childhood rite of passage of picking a dandelion that has gone to seed and blowing on it while making a wish, spreading the seeds in the wind. 

Their name may make you roar

The term dandelion is from the French term "dent de lion," which means lion's tooth. The common name for the plant was inspired by the jagged edges of the plant's leaves, resembling the teeth of a lion, according to the Ohio State University Ohio Perennial and Biennial Weed Guide. Its scientific name is Taraxacum officinale, and officinale, which means "official" or "sold in shops," was probably given to the plant because it was sold in markets. The genus name, Taraxacum, is thought to have been derived from the Persian term "tarashquan," which means bitter pot herb.

In France, dandelions are called pissenlit, which literally translates to "pee the bed," according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The name is a reference to the plant's effect as a diuretic when consumed.

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