By: Priscilla Hayes
I recently got to catch up with my friend Pam Lewis, who mentioned that she was trying to convince her 80+ year old, “green grass crazy” landlord that the dandelions in the backyard of the apartment shouldn’t be removed.
“They are rock stars of the plant world,” Pam told me, “not weeds.”
Of course, like many of our weeds, dandelions were introduced by Puritan, Dutch and German settlers, who saw them as a source of both medicine and food—including dandelion wine.
So if dandelions are non-native, doesn’t that automatically make them unwelcome?
Pam’s research led her to the following website, http://www.georgiawildlife.com/node/3007, from which she learned the following about dandelions:
93 species of insects collect nectar from dandelion flowers, including bees, and butterflies such as sulphers, cabbage whites and admirals. Ruby throated hummingbirds weave dandelion seeds into their nests.
Seeds and foliage are eaten by at least 33 species of wildlife including 4 different kinds of sparrows: chipping, field, house and song, American Goldfinch, indigo bunting, quail, turkeys, chipmunks, rabbits and white tail deer.
Leaves are eaten by caterpillar larvae of 13 species of butterflies and moths including the Frilliary butterfly, one of the 1st butterflies of spring.
Wine and beer can be created with the flowers. Leaves are delicious and highly nutritious as they supply Vitamins A, D, and C, potassium, and magnesium. Dandelion has been found to be helpful for arthritis, has been utilized as a laxative and as a treatment for liver disease. The milky sap is excellent at removing warts, which Pam thought was especially great to know.
As you can see, Pam’s research seems to suggest that this non-native plant is extremely beneficial, so how should we respond to dandelions? Should we continue on with knee-jerk removal, or should we learn to understand them as something useful to both humans and other species?
As it turns out, there is a project devoted to just such questions based at Columbia University. Called the Introduced Species Summary Project, its goal is “to provide information that would help a natural resources manager or concerned citizen to understand the basic biology of a non-native species and whether and how to respond to its arrival.” (http://www.columbia.edu/itc/cerc/danoff-burg/invasion_bio/inv_spp_summ/invbio_plan_report_home.html) The project grew out of a graduate level Invasion Biology course and a Certificate in Conservation ecology course. I just love discovering things like this and the Lost Ladybug Project.
There are 95 species included in the Project so far, most of which are not actually just arriving, but have already “become common in at least some areas of the Eastern United States.” I have noted that there is an entry on both the domestic cat and on humans, both of which I will probably report on in this blog at some future date.
But for dandelions, the site confirms what Pam learned—the plant has many benefits, and unlike many introduced species, actually hosts or feeds much beneficial wildlife. The Introduced Species Summary Project found no ecological threats posed by dandelions unless you just insisted on thinking of them as weeds, like Pam’s “green grass crazy” landlord, who she hopes to convince otherwise with her new findings!