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Weekly “What is it?”: Dandelions

The prolific dandelion produces seedheads that are highly effective at spreading through a landscape. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

I loved dandelions as a kid. The idea of a backyard full of magical wishes (granted only if you could blow away all the wispy seed heads in one blow) was too terrific to pass up. My best friend and I would spend whole afternoons yanking up the weeds and blowing them to our hearts’ content. I was much older when I realized that by doing this, I was spreading what many consider a nuisance weed all over the neighborhood. But as one of our horticulture specialists once said, “A weed is not a weed to its mother!” I, too, still have a soft spot for those perfect dandelion orbs.

While non-native, dandelion flowers are attractive to native pollinators. Photo credit: University of Wisconsin Extension

Recognizable by their multi-petaled, radially symmetrical yellow flowers, the dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is native to Europe but found its way to the United States a long time ago. Medicinal and food-related uses are wide-ranging for the plant, from a liver tonic to a leafy green vegetable. Home gardeners are known to use the flowers for making dandelion wine and tea. Every part of the dandelion plant, including the blossom, is edible, and tastes better if picked in the early spring. The leaves can be served as greens and are full of calcium, iron, and potassium. The roots’ flavor has been described as similar to a turnip. However, those with latex allergies should avoid ingesting the plant, as dandelion sap contains natural latex.

The individual seed of a dandelion, known as a pappus, floats through the air like a tiny parachute. Photo credit: University of Wisconsin Extension

The individual seeds of a dandelion are something of an engineering marvel. If you pull out a single seed (called a pappus), it resembles a small parachute, with its fluffy, white spinning chute and tiny cargo of a seed. These are wind (and child)-dispersed, allowing the seeds to drift in and colonize new areas. Like most weedy species, they can germinate quickly in a wide variety of soil conditions. Dandelion plants are prolific—a single plant can produce up to 20,000 seeds! The blooms are popular nectar sources for honeybees, butterflies, and moths, and caterpillars of many species feed on the leaves.