Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale agg.) get a variable press in Britain.
They are, arguably, beautiful flowers (actually groups of tiny flowers as Dandelions are a member of the Asteraceae family) but my sister wages war on the species as her most hated weed. I guess they can look messy when you have a mixture of flower-head buds, flower-heads, seed heads and old stems that have shed their seeds, but a road-side verge full of golden dandelions has got to be as bold and cheerful a sight in spring as a verge full of golden daffodils!
So why do gardeners hate them so much? Maybe because they are difficult to remove or relocate. Some self-seeding wild flowers make a welcome addition to the garden and are easily removed from the ‘wrong’ place or once they are past their prettiest stage. Not so the dandelion.
The dandelion’s tap root goes extremely deep, enabling it to compete effectively for nutrients and water. But, for some reason, the root is less woody than is general for tap roots, so it readily snaps when pulled. The lower section that remains in the ground, has the ability to regrow even if none of the plant stem material is left behind. A small ring of new shoots develop around the broken root surface and each of these shoots pushes up above ground so that one shoot is now four or five… or seven or eight. That’s why my sister hates them! That and the fact that every amazingly engineered dandelion clock is a ticking bomb of potential new recruits to the population. The seeds will seek out and find the bare soil where weeds have been removed or ground has been prepared for vegetables or chosen flowers.
Children, however, are much more likely to pause in wonder at the bright jewel of the flowers, or enjoy the fun of blowing away the seeds of a clock – even if breaking the stem and getting the white sap on your hands is supposed to make you wet the bed!
How’s this for a child’s-eye view:
Yellow and shining
Fluffy disc of gold upturned
A star in the grass.
Cassie Newbery – aged 11
Bright gold I’d say. I wondered if you knew if the fritillaries were blooming on campus or is it too soon? They had a beautiful display last year.
Best Easter wishes to you,
Not quite yet but very soon.
There are a few in flower in the western grassland.
“… ability to regrow …” Yes – and still you get them out all in one piece (most times) if you stick a sharp object (strong nail, small, longish trowel etc.) down alongside the stem, then loosen the soil by gently pushing a bit back and forth. Takes a little practice but once you get the hang of it you can pull out almost all the roots in their entirety each and every time. Then … here’s another tip: immediately throw a few seeds of something you WANT to see in their stead into the whole that’s left and chances are far better that these seeds will compete successfully with the potential remnants for the sunlight, even if the dandelions are better at getting to the water (which competitive advantage you can neutralise by watering the spots from above in early evenings!).
Our beekeeper says that dandelion is one of the earliest flowering plants that is good for bees to feed on when their reserves are low in the spring. They are used by lots of butterflies and hoverflies too a little later on. I think our world would be a sad one if the bright cheerful dandelions became rare (look at what’s happened with house sparrows and starlings). The leaves are a calcium rich, bitter addition to salads (not from an area used by dogs or possibly sprayed with herbicide!)
And not just gold… many of the 100+ species described in the BSBI handbook (quite a few more have been discovered since it was published) also have highly coloured petioles and midribs. They can be anything from pale pink to bright purple and often this leaf coloration is both useful in identification to both Section and species levels and very beautiful.
Here are three species from campus, from the three of the four Sections I have found so far.
Taraxacum expallidiforme Dahlst. Section Ruderalia. Lleaves about 20cm, with green midribs.
This section contains many of the big “weedy” dandelions, like the first picture above. Many are introductions, they are often large and like this one have complex leaf lobing.
Det. John Richards.
T. glauciniforme Dahlst. Section Erythrosperma. Leaves about 7cm. Higgledy-piggledy lobes. Seems to be the commonest species of this Section on Campus. It gorws in gravelly places or in the short grass around Agriculture.
Species in Section Erythrosperma, which are far fewer than Ruderalias, are very often found in semi-natural habitats, such as short calcareous grassland and sand dunes. Like this one, they are, therefore, likely to be native. Generally remaining small in all their parts – many dandelions in mown grass retain their large heads, which is often a sign they would, if allowed, grow into a large species. Many have highly coloured petioles.
Det. PR., conf. John Richards.
T. bracteatum Dahlst.. Section Celtica. Leaves about 20cm. Highly coloured midrbs and simple lobes which have few if any teeth. Bracts erect to only slighly spreading.
Celtica are the so-called “western” dandelions. Like Erythrosperms, they are not usually weeds, often, but not always, they prefer damp meadows. Like ll dandelions they can vary hugely in size, but generally they are mid-sized. Like Section Hamata (not illustrated but very, very common on Campus in the mown grassland and in other improved habtats) they have relatively simple, highly coloured leaves. They are often recognisable from their bright purple midribs.
Det. PR., conf. John Richards.