We are so proud of Gig Harbor that we may give the impression in describing our city that proverbially our streets are paved with gold.
Not so, but they are lined with gold. Each summer our roadside ditches glow golden with dandelions. Weeds? It depends on your definition. If a weed is a plant growing where its not wanted, like in your lawn, of course. But roadside ditches are sterile places and I would argue that these bright flowers add roadside interest.
I marvel at their tenacity through the rainless summer months. Roadways also favor the plant’s reproduction. Air blown along the road by passing vehicles carries thousands of parachuted seeds along the ditch. Back in the East, ragweed is the ditch denizen with unhappy results for hay fever sufferers.
Several dandelion species
Most of us call any plant that looks like a dandelion by that name.
These members of the sunflower family all have yellow flowers atop leafless stems above a basal rosette of overlapping leaves. They also happen to be lawn weeds. The roadside species is hairy cat’s ear (Hypochoeris radiacata), or false dandelion; on close inspection, very different from true dandelions.
Cat’s ear can have more than one flower head per stem, coarse wavy-margined leaves and multiple roots. I suspect there are many “dandelions.” I have identified two other species locally. Insect pollinated, there isn’t a sneeze from any of them.
I was delighted to see true dandelion (Taraxicum officinale) in full glorious bloom last spring in the planter atop the brick barrier at the foot of Pioneer Way; fully as beautiful as the cultivated flowers that replaced them soon thereafter. As an educator, I had bittersweet experiences with dandelions: Always close at hand, the dandelion was perfect for hands-on nature study.
Kids took flower heads apart to see the characteristics it has in common with all members of this huge and economically important Sunflower plant family. Young children were fascinated.
Older children, who had learned dandelions were ugly reviled weeds, were a harder sell.
A friend has written a whole book about dandelions. A few highlights: The fanciful common name is from the French “dent-du-lion” (dent means tooth). Look at a leaf’s margin to see a row of sharp teeth. The beautifully symmetrical blowballs are favorites with children for their fun-to-puff parachuted seeds. Country folk traditionally enjoy early spring vitamin-rich dandelion crowns in salads or as potherbs before the bitterness develops.
Diuretic properties give dandelion its French name pissenlit (lit means bed). Leaf bitterness makes dandelion, a Middle East native, one of several plants likely used as bitter herbs in Passover meals (Exodus 12:8).
The most remarkable and least known use of dandelion was for rubber. A Russian species with high latex root content was used to make Russian truck tires during World War II. Current research supported by several tire manufacturers is developing even higher latex dandelions.
The perfect weed
One could not invent a more perfect lawn weed than the dandelion thriving unwanted in a yard near you. Below ground, a long, easily- broken tap root is difficult to pull. Cat’s ear has shorter multiple, easier to pull roots. Both have ground hugging rosettes of leaves that survive beneath the lawn mower while preventing grass from crowding them out.
In the lawn, very short flowers duck beneath mower blades. Many tiny flowers in a single composite flower head pollinated by a single bee visit produce a ball of parachuted seeds to spread the next generation.
Next time you eliminate a dandelion from your property, spend a few minutes to take apart a flower head to admire with a lens the tiny individual flowers complete with petals, pistil, stamens and the developing parachuted seeds beneath. This is the same basic model for all the many thousands of composite flowers worldwide including those we most admire like asters, blazing-stars, cosmos, dahlias, marigolds and zinnias.
(Reference: Sanchez, Anita, The Teeth of the Lion: The Story of the Beloved and Despised Dandelion, McDonald &Woodward Publ., Blacksburg, VA, 2006, 136 p.)
Frank Knight can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.