The dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is perhaps one of the first wildflowers that many of us learned to identify. The cheery yellow flowers bring dots of color to yards and other open areas, while the puffball seed heads bring joy and laughter to kids everywhere. However, many homeowners view them as an evil weed to be destroyed on sight.
The name “dandelion” comes from the French phrase “dente-de-lion” and means lion’s tooth. Most sources say the name refers to the jagged “teeth” of the dandelion leaves, but a few sources suggest other references such as to the long taproot that looks kind of like a lion’s canine tooth. Dandelions are native to Europe and were brought to the U.S. by the early European settlers. The dandelion has since spread and become naturalized across most of North America.
Historically, dandelions were used for medicinal purposes and also as a source of food which is why the early European settlers brought the plant with them to the Americas. The leaves are high in vitamin C and can be eaten as a green in many of the same ways that we eat turnip greens, kale, and spinach today. The flowers can also be picked and turned into wine or jelly. Some people still pick and eat dandelion greens or make dandelion wine or jelly.
In Kentucky, dandelions can be found blooming in every month. For the past two years, I’ve found dandelions blooming on Christmas day. However, dandelions bloom most often from February through November. Dandelion blooms can provide important sources of nectar and pollen for many insect pollinators. I’ve seen small flies, ants, native bees, small butterflies, and honey bees all gathering nectar and pollen from dandelions.
Many of the native pollinators will work dandelions when there are only a few flowers blooming. Honey bees, however, will often ignore dandelions until there are quite a few blooming. That’s just the way honey bees are. They like to have a good number of the same species of flower blooming before they will work it.
In the early spring when the dandelions first really get started blooming again, dandelions can be an important source of early nectar and pollen for honey bees. Studies have shown that honey bees can’t raise their brood on just dandelion pollen because dandelion pollen doesn’t have all of the nutritional components that honey bee larva need. However, it can supplement other sources of pollen such as pollen from early blooming trees.
Unfortunately each year, homeowners across the country wage war on dandelions. Homeowners spend millions of dollars a year on herbicides to kill dandelions and other weeds out of their yards so they can have a perfect blanket of solid green grass. Almost every herbicide commercial on TV features dandelions as the quintessential “evil yard weed.”
Given how important honey bees and other pollinators are and how many of them are declining, maybe it is time to give dandelions a break. This spring let them bloom instead of destroying them on sight. You can always mow down the flower before it goes to seed if you don’t want to propagate them in your yard. However, by letting them bloom first you are helping many insect pollinators, saving money by not buying the herbicides, and saving the time you would have spent killing the dandelions. Dandelions really aren’t all that bad.
This article was part of Shannon’s original Kentucky Pollinators and Backyard Wildlife blog which evolved into the blog for Backyard Ecology.
Backyard Ecology: Exploring Nature in Your Backyard
Nature isn’t just “out there.” It’s all around us, including right outside our doors. Hi, my name is Shannon Trimboli, and I am the host of Backyard Ecology. I live in southcentral Kentucky and am a wildlife biologist, educator, author, beekeeper, and owner of a nursery specializing in plants for pollinators and wildlife conservation. I invite you to join me as we ignite our curiosity and natural wonder, explore our yards and communities, and improve our local pollinator and wildlife habitat. Learn more or subscribe to my email list at www.backyardecology.net.