In Defense of Dandelions!

Dandelions, their bright yellow flowers herald in the spring and the promise that summer is almost here.

Most people call them weeds but dandelions are really just a persistent perennial herb. Dandelions are not a native species. Early settlers brought them over to America for use as a healing herb, salad green, and for making tea and wine. Because they were not a native species, they had no natural controls and quickly spread across the country.

Dandelions' medicinal value has been known for centuries. Dandelions are readily available and free for the picking. Consider them as "deer proof" flowers. Dried or fresh, the blooms are not bitter and are very high in potassium, lecithin (thought to enhance memory and overall brain activity), calcium and trace minerals. The blooms, leaves, and root make an excellent diuretic that, unlike most diuretics, does not deplete potassium levels. The whole plant is safe and non-toxic although most people use just the blooms and leaves. Make sure the dandelions you pick have not been sprayed with any pesticides. The greens, especially young fresh ones, picked early in the morning add zip to any salad.

Are dandelions really so bad? Of course not, but lawn lovers are not usually tolerant of any invasive plant species; even one that kids love to pick and make into posies for their moms and dads.

Some homeowners spend endless hours trying to rid their lawn of dandelions. They pick, pluck, dig, spray, and mow them down with determination but often -- limited success. They curse their neighbor's lawn when the golden flowers turn into fluffy white rounds; each a glider, waiting for the wind to gently fly them to a new home, right in the middle of a sea of green. But those pernicious gliders assault from the air, looking for contact with a bare patch of earth, to touch down and germinate. If only they could erect a protective bubble to keep them out.

The lawn lovers who want their lawn to look like artificial turf not only use weed killer on their lawns but want to spray the entire neighborhood. According to the EPA over 49 million pounds of weed killer (herbicides) were used on home lawns in 1997. Total pesticide usage for the home and garden was 136 million pounds for the same year.

Who benefits from not using weed killers? Birds, butterflies, insects, fish and people who live downstream. Who benefits from maintaining a weed-free turf looking lawn? The oil and chemical industry.

What are the alternatives to using weed killers? Well, first increase your tolerance for dandelions and other "weeds," but if you still want to get rid of them you need to understand that a weed is nature's front line defense against bare soil and erosion and it is a good indicator of your lawns' soil conditions.

The easiest way to decrease areas of bare soil is by reseeding and actually over-seeding your lawn with a mixture of Kentucky blue-grass, ryegrass and red fescues. This also will help with any erosion problems.

The best time to try and remove unwanted dandelions by the root is as soon as the flower appears (at this time the food reserves in the root are very low) and after a rain when the ground is softened. Use a long-handled weed fork or a weed popper. Dig out 4-5 inches of the root, and you have an 80% chance that any remaining root will not put up another stalk. A healthy lawn will compete with weeds (like dandelions) and win!

Yes, some homeowners even prize the dandelions in their yard. They look forward every year to a sea of yellow and enjoy their beauty and relish their persistent tenacity to survive where other flowering herbs can't.

You can try to eradicate them but just like a bad penny that keeps on turning up, so does the errant dandelion. Remember -- one person's weed is often another persons' herb.

Debbie Ortman is former national field director for the Organic Consumers Association and is co-coordinator and lawn care technician of the Green Thumb Project (Great Lakes pesticide-free lawn care). Email Resources: Green Thumb Project: The Dirt Doctor's Guide to Organic Gardening: The Way of Herbs by Michael Tierra MD. The Green Pharmacy by James A. Duke. EPA:

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