At long last, spring is in the air! As I type these words, the sun sparkles on newly exposed grass covered in a light frost. In the crunchy mess of leaves that scatter the yard, life is waking up and crawling about.
Soon enough, in true Canadian style, people will be jumping the gun on wearing shorts and sandals. Or perhaps - the most unforgivable - socks with sandals. If they’re able to fight off the urge to wear shorts, they may spot a glimpse of emerging grass and power up the lawnmower. I tease but I won’t deny that I feel the same urgency. After a long winter, we’re all eager to change gears and embrace a new season.
When I think of spring, one of the first things that comes to mind is a fury of golden, ferocious wildflower heads. What the French deemed lion’s teeth (dents de lion): the dandelion.
While often referred to as a weed, the dandelion is undeniably a ‘wild’ flower.
We only call it a weed because it’s so prolific. Although some weeds are noxious and can be harmful to our health or the health of native ecosystems, dandelions need not be feared. Yet so many people hate them.
I’ve never understood why people dislike dandelions. For me, the arrival of dandelions marks the beginning of many beautiful things to come. They hold fond memories of yellow stains on the knees of my jeans from playing outside, and the childhood bling of a flower ring I tied gently around my finger.
As one of the first flowers to bloom, it is the promise of growth to come and all the elements of summer that I love. The buzz of insects. The chatter of birds. Sparkling dew in the morning. Long, lazy days that blend into hot evenings where you don’t need a jacket. The seduction of a summer breeze that wraps you like a lukewarm hug.
I also happen to think dandelions are just plain pretty.
Maybe you’re with me on this. Maybe you’re not. I can’t convince you to instantly see them as beautiful, especially if your idea of beautiful is a green, thick, lush lawn devoid of these seemingly pesky things. But I can understand the desire to make things look clean and beautiful. As Alberta Camus said, “ We all have a weakness for beauty.” The sad truth is, however, that many gardeners and lawn-lovers may be denying themselves of a whole lot of beauty in trying to cultivate the very thing. This is because:
Bees, butterflies, birds and other native pollinators depend on dandelions for early sources of food.
As wildflowers, dandelions support other wildlife. Larvae of many butterflies feed on dandelions. Birds like the American Goldfinch feed on their seeds. Wild bees rely on their early sources of nectar and pollen to tide them over until other flowers come into bloom. In fact, a recent study out of the UK showed that dandelions contributed to almost all early nectar and pollen production.
By taking away native food sources, you un-invite native wildlife. Eliminating dandelions denies you the enjoyment of observing other wildlife. Have you heard of the term biophilia? It is our innate desire to connect to the natural world. So, if you’re thinking, I’m not that interested in enjoying butterflies, birds and bees in my yard, think again.
There is an innate source inside you that strongly desires some time in the wild. Even if that wild is just your backyard.
Furthermore, some of the nursery plants you’re buying to replace the wildflowers you work to eradicate may also be creating problems. Traces of neonicotinoids, a common ingredient in many agricultural and household pesticides, are found in many commercially-produced nursery plants. These substances are detrimental to wild bees and other pollinators like butterflies. Research has shown that the use of neonicotinoids can alter the way wild bees forage for wildflowers and impact their ability to reach their hive. Fortunately, companies like Lowes and Rona are phasing out the use of neonicotinoids in their commercial plants. Still, it’s best to ask if your nursery plants contain neonictonoids before purchasing them.
So, by removing dandelions from your yard you take away an important food source, and by adding nursery plants you may be introducing a detrimental food source. Unfortunately, the trouble doesn’t stop there.
We depend on bees and other native pollinators to produce our food.
Speaking of early summer and the promise dandelions spark for glorious days ahead, is there anything better than fresh, in-season strawberries? Or how about stumbling on a patch of plump, ripe raspberries in July? Or what about the beautiful little bundles of wild blueberries in August?
None of these would exist without pollinators. In fact, a lot of our food wouldn’t exist without pollinators. A study in 2007 showed that 87 of the worlds’s leading food crops depend on animal pollination.
We rely heavily on bees and native pollinators to produce our food. Without them, many of the fruits, vegetables and seed production of other crops won’t happen. Yet, native pollinator populations continue to decline.
While the reasons for decline are in debate, habitat loss is at the root of the problem. Farming practices that focus on the production of massive monocultures have largely contributed to this loss. But the impact of oversimplified lawns and household pesticide use also contribute to the problem.
If dandelion equals food for bee, and bee equals food for us, then dandelion equals food for us.
It’s a transitive property. Do you remember that geometry lesson? If a=b and b=c, then a = c. I may be oversimplifying the situation, but the facts remain that dandelions are a crucial source of early nectar and pollen for bees, butterflies and other pollinators, and pollinators are crucially important for the production of our food.
Dandelions are also a food source for us. In fact, they are even being produced on a commercial scale now. They are chalk full of vitamins and can be used as a diuretic. Dandelion wine is also said to be delicious and dandelion roots can be used as a coffee substitute.
Keeping dandelions around is not just about helping feed the bees, it’s also about securing our own food future.
Take action now. Or more precisely, stop taking action.
As a yard-owner, one of the best things you can do is embrace dandelions. Don’t go on a crusade trying to eliminate them from your lawn. Enjoy them. Enjoy the attention they attract from birds and insects - the sounds of life buzzing and chirping around you. If you get really into it, go ahead and make a dandelion crown. Wear it proudly.
Educate your neighbours. Be a steward of your land and set an example in your community of a more all-accepting approach to yard maintenance. As a champion of change, you’ll inspire others to see things differently if you start doing things differently.
If you can’t get over the messy perspective of dandelions, consider mowing a tidy edge around areas that are left to grow up. A clean edge can give masses of wildflowers a tidy, more purposeful look.
Or, try setting the blade on your mower a little higher to allow some flower heads to persist. At the very minimum, just put off mowing for a couple of days to the let the little fellas feed.
And if you must mow, please remember to wear sneakers. I beg of you, no socks with sandals.