The Casual Gardener: In defence of the dandelion

The diminutive dandelion is vilified as a weed but John Manley urges gardeners to adopt a more tolerant approach to this undervalued native wild flower

A dandelion flower is made up of 100 yellow florets Picture: Mal McCann

OVER the coming weeks the multinational agrochemical industry’s annual marketing drive will be in full swing, with swathes of our most familiar plants and flowers demonised for the benefit of CEOs’ bonuses and shareholder dividend. The sales patter will offer a foolproof solution for controlling weeds, casting them as the bane of humanity and in need of eradication.

Lush, deep green, perfectly-manicured lawns will be held up as an ideal, the standard every right-thinking gardener should seek to replicate over the months ahead. I’m not averse to a well-mown lawn but in moderation. I also gave up some time ago on those weed-and-feed treatments that operate a scorched-earth policy.

Sadly, though, here in Ireland not only is this bland aesthetic regarded as appropriate for your garden, it is also the norm for verges outside homes. On these slivers of public land middle-aged men with ride-on mowers and little else left to live for pass the time cutting grass to within a millimetre of its life. In the mistaken belief that they are performing a public service, they mow the verge up to 100 yards either side of their property, taking plaudits from similarly minded individuals, who, my own research has concluded, were much more likely to have voted for Brexit.

On the receiving end of this carnage is the dandelion. A plant and flower known to us all from an early age, Taraxacum officinale takes its common name from the French dent de lion, meaning lion’s tooth.

Other less grand names for the dandelion include ‘pee-the-bed’ and ‘pissy-beds’, a reference to its effectiveness as a diuretic. The plant’s uses and applications elsewhere are numerous: the young leaves are edible and packed with vitamins and antioxidants; the root, ground, serves as a caffeine-free coffee substitute; and those distinctive yellow flowers can be made into wine. In the past its sap has been used to treat a variety of ailments, from colds and constipation to asthma and ulcers.

As familiar as the urine-related names and the aforementioned flowers are the fluffy seed balls that follow when the latter is exhausted. Often used to gauge the weather – open indicates fine, dry weather while closed means it’s going to be wet – the mature dandelion’s most common application in childhood is as a timepiece, with the hours counted on each blow of the delicate head until every seed is cast to the wind.

It may not have had odes penned in its honour or inspired songs and symphonies but the dandelion is an important native flower and one that should be treasured and protected, rather than maligned in the manner it is, poisoned and burned, often at the taxpayer’s expense.

With the loss of wild habitats over recent decades, the importance of the dandelion’s role has increased. The flowers, which peak from March through to May, are made up of up to 100 yellow florets, each brimming with nectar and pollen. They’re one of the few flowers around at this time of year that can feed those bees, butterflies, ladybirds and other insects that emerge in early spring. Goldfinches and house sparrows also find nourishment in the seed.

But we gardeners tend to have zero tolerance of the dandelion, having bought into the propaganda that promotes neatness.

According to Donna Rainey, the Co Derry eco-activist whose 'Don't Mow – Let it Grow' initiative was featured in this column last June, the diminutive dandelion is a vital part of our fragile eco system.

"Dandelions are absolutely crucial for pollinators,especially newly emerged queen bumblebees and solitary bees – they are unbeatable," she says.

"They are in a category of their own – they are edible an have many herbal uses. It's time to turn the tide of vilification that has plagued the poor dandelion for years."

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