Why Dandelions Are One of the Most Adaptable Garden Plants

“An ode to dandelion”

A tougher plant will never be

Seen by you or seen by me.

With a golden halo Spring hello

And big fleshy roots underneath.

He appears here, he appears up there,

in lawns and crevices and everywhere.

Boiled vegetables in leaf wine,

why, those golden orbs even serve the bees!

And when his sunny side passes,

Its silk seeds adorn the sky.

By the wind or the rain or the bouncing child

Her little parents go by nature.

Now you think as gardeners we would be impressed,

of dynamism and vigor … performance galore.

But you’d be wrong over hill and dale,

‘casue most call it the beast of hale.

We pull it and spray it and curse it by name,

But it comes back… again and again.

This little plant, which can and could,

A Darwinian marvel, just misunderstood.

When I worked at the University of Maine, the forestry department was in the building directly across from my office window. And on the south side of this black-stained wooden structure – all warm and cozy at this time of year – the very first flowers on campus would appear. Not magnolias or forsythias or even “Bradford” pears, but a small patch of dandelions would make the first appearance of flowers year after year.

Dandelions are making a comeback in early spring 2019. April 5, 2019

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Not that those dandelions were in a sweet spot. The ground was a horrible mixture of clay and construction rubble. And not that the campus landscaping team hasn’t done their best every year to pulverize the life force of the little devils. They did, to be sure. But they came back every year, pressed against that warm concrete foundation with the brown wooden siding radiating all kinds of thermal energy.

In short, it was simply a perfect example of the right plant, in the right place. After all, what else would survive there?

The common dandelion (Taraxacum officinalelisten)) is a native Eurasian gift to most of the northern hemisphere. It grows in wet meadows where it does in the wild what it does in our yards and gardens. It finds a place where few things will grow – or even a place where something else will grow – and sprouts with its shiny golden flowers followed by fluffy seed heads.

The common dandelion (the word “dandelion” coming from the French for dandelion – a reference to the deeply incised leaves) is a member of the aster family. And depending on which botanist you follow this week, there are between 60 and around 2,000 species on the planet!

You see, dandelions are apomictic. This means that their flowers often produce seeds without pollination. And seeds from a single apomictic mother plant are all clones (no pollen dad) of each other and their mother. And as these clonal populations grow, they evolve into what plant taxonomists trying to get a mandate call microspecies. (Please taxonomists and families of taxonomists – no hate mail, please. Some of my best friends are taxonomists, really.)

A dandelion was the only thing behind home plate at the Prairie Village ball diamond on Thursday, May 28, 2020. Empty dugouts are the reality as players and parents await the return of youth baseball and softball.

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But aside from the amazing cultural adaptability and gee-wiz-ness aside from the apomictic thing, there’s another amazing thing about dandelions. You can actually watch Darwinian evolution unfold before your eyes. The common dandelion has a flower stalk that typically measures about 15 inches from top to bottom. These juicy, hollow wands are perfect handfuls for kids running around the lawn and spreading seeds all over your perfect green carpet of (mostly) grass. Nice picture. But what’s so cool about it?

Well, here’s a simple question. If flower stalks are usually a foot or more long, where do those plants come from that grow those boring flowers an inch or two off the ground – barely below the lawnmower blade? Dandelions don’t do that in nature.

According to the National Turfgrass Research Initiative, Americans maintain approximately 50 million acres of turf, making it the 4th largest crop in the nation. And with billions and billions (dare you say, trillions or even dreaded gazillions?) of dandelion seeds floating around the United States, there are bound to be some spontaneous genetic variations that result in a shorter flower stem. Talk about Darwinian selection pressure. If those variants with 1-inch-long flower stalks are preferentially saved and left under the mower blade, guess which ones will be about three days later to shed their seeds?

So ! Instant evolution.

Off the green, a few dandelions are the only gallery as Bryan Fifer practices at Shawnee Golf Course in West Louisville during his lunch break Monday afternoon.  Tuesday weather is expected to be rainy but clear Wednesday through Friday.  May 3, 2021

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Of course, the dandelion in North America is an exotic plant. But does it really meet the definition of invasive? Does it actively crowd out other native species as, for example, Amur honeysuckle does in and around Louisville? Not really. At least not most of the time. The biggest thing it crowds out in my neighborhood is some of our Kentucky Bluegrass which, by the way, is not native to My Old Kentucky Home or anywhere else this side of the Atlantic Ocean !

Hale’s beast, I think not. Let us marvel, at least for a moment, at this Darwinian combination of vigor and dynamism.

Paul Cappiello is the executive director of Yew Dell Botanical Gardens, 6220 Old Lagrange Road, yewdellgardens.org.

80 years of architecture at Yew Dell

WHAT: Join Yew Dell in celebrating its 20th anniversary with an evening dedicated to architecture. Yew Dell’s leading architectural partners for the past 20 years, Ross Primmer and Roberto de Leon of Leon & Primmer’s architectural studio, will present a talk and walk covering Theodore Klein’s whimsical castle, the home and Cotswold-style outbuildings, and how they inspired DeLeon & Primmer’s award-winning new architecture seen on the pitch today. Enjoy an evening of cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, an architectural talk and stroll, and take home a whole new appreciation for the magic of Yew Dell.

WHERE: Yew Dell Botanical Gardens, 6220 Old La Grange Road

WHEN: March 15, 6-8 p.m.

COST: 50$-60$

MORE INFORMATION: yewdellgardens.org