Are dandelions weeds?

Are dandelions weeds?

I have waged a battle against dandelions in my garden for years, but now I’ve called a truce. We may one day even become friends.

 

The turning point was when I gave up trying to maintain a traditional lawn. Part of me would still like one – especially as I’d invested in a great electric scarifier not long before I was forced into retreat.

I don’t use herbicides or pesticides anywhere else in the garden and I was getting grief for wanting to use them on the lawn. I knew that if I wanted an elegant lawn to set off the beds I would have no choice but to get on my knees and spend hours weeding. In a strop, I refused. I decided to let the weeds just come.

Oxeye daisies

Oxeye daisies ©storyteller garden

They did. And the effect took me by surprise. By the apple tree my lawn grew a pretty mat of blue speedwell. I had a little island of oxeye daisies – at one point, when the first flush of roses was over, they and the smaller daisies in the lawn were just about the only colour in the garden. The moss meant my lawn was green even during the driest patches.

And then there were the dandelions. In the 18th century, Philip Miller, the former chief gardener at the Chelsea Physic Garden, seemed to get crosser about them over time. In 1754 he seemed reasonably tolerant.

“There are also some People very fond of it blanch’d in the Spring, like Endive; but whoever has a mind to have it for either Use, may be abundantly supplied in the Fields.” Philip Miller, Gardener’s Dictionary 1754

Seventeen years later he was taking a much tougher line.

“They are very bad weeds both in gardens and fields, so should be rooted out before their seeds are ripe, otherwise they will spread to a great distance.” Philip Miller, Gardener’s Dictionary 1771.

Today our attitudes are softening again. In 2022 I organised a series of garden writers to give talks at Bromley House Library in Nottingham, where I am a trustee.  Gareth Richards, author of: “RHS Weeds – the beauty and uses of 50 vagabond plants”, was one of our guests.

He explained how the top five nectar producing plants and two of the top 10 pollen producers are native British weed species, and among them is the dandelion. So, if we want to support nature, we need to leave some of these weeds be.

Each yellow dandelion head is actually about a hundred individual flowers. These are a veritable pantry of pollen and nectar for bees. Pollen offers the bees protein; nectar the carbs that give them energy. While they need a more diverse diet to be healthy, in early spring the dandelions can offer a vital source of sustenance when little else is in flower.

Dandelion weeds into food

Meanwhile, the dandelion is good for us humans too. Richards recommends the buds for pickling – “they make a useful homegrown caper substitute”. He says the flowers can also be deep fried in batter for a tasty snack. Just wash them, dip them wet in flour and sauté them for a few minutes.

Dandelion flowers

Dandelion flowers

The leaves can be used raw in salads as a substitute for radicchio (with a sweet honey salad dressing). In France and Germany dandelions are grown as an edible crop. Plants are blanched like rhubarb, by excluding the light, to make the leaves less bitter. Richards says they are rich in vitamins A, B, C, D and minerals.

The dandelion root, used (allegedly) in the “dandelion and burdock” pop we used to drink as kids, is said to be good for the liver and to aid digestion.

Pis-en-lit

I am a little hesitant about using dandelions as a food source. There’s a reason one of the old English names for it is “pissabed” – in France, “pis-en-lit”. It’s a diuretic. Or, at least, its leaves are.

“It wonderfully openeth the uritorie parts, causing abundance of urine. Not onely in chidren whose meseraicall veines are not sufficiently strong to containe the quantitie of urine drawne in the night, but that then without restraint or keeping it backe they water their beds, but in those of old age also upon the stopping of yielding small quantitie of urine.” John Parkinson (1567-1650), Herbalist to King Charles I, author of Theatrum Botanicum (published 1640)

However, this year I plan to try harvesting my dandelion flowers and leaves – an organic addition to salads.

No longer a weed?

Dandelion seed head

Dandelion seed head ©Storyteller garden

Seeing the dandelion in this fresh light I am now beginning to really enjoy spotting it on roadside verges near my house and in the countryside. Put aside your prejudices and look carefully at a fresh dandelion bloom. It’s an explosion of joyful yellow. And those delicate seed heads that parachute its offspring to neighbouring flower beds are a thing of utter beauty.

So yes, the dandelion can now make itself at home in my lawn with all its other “weed” friends. I mow a central sweep of the bed throughout the year, but leave little oases of “no mow” abandon during May. That’s where it can find a home. But it’s not having my rose beds!

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About the Storyteller Gardener

Martin Stott is an award-winning journalist who has written for most of the UK national press and reported from 21 countries for the BBC World Service and Radio 4. The storyteller garden blog combines his passion for storytelling, gardening and history.