Wild wanders with Fiona Hall: The humble dandelion
After her degree in Countryside Management, Fiona worked as a Ranger in Scotland for several years. We're delighted to now have her on board as our Biodiversity Consultant!
In our 'Wild Wanders' guide series, Fiona shares her thoughts on the wildflowers we might find on our daily walks, or in our gardens.
First up - and very appropriate to our founding logo - the humble dandelion.
The wildflowers we see on our daily wanders are sometimes pretty, sometime seemingly insignificant and sometimes rare. The dandelion, however, is easily identifiable. We all know what a dandelion looks like, and have known since childhood.
I thought it would be interesting, however, to share a few facts you might not know about dandelions.
You know what they look like. To many they are annoying ‘weeds’, with yellow flowers and white puffball dandelion clocks we blow on to tell the time as children (I still try).
Each cheerful, bright yellow flower head - easy to spot at a distance - is made up of hundreds of tightly-packed petals, with a green case and green leaves which all come from the base at ground level.
Dandelions flower from March to October. When the yellow flower fades, it becomes a seed head containing many tiny seeds, each with its own ‘parachute’ of white fluff. Together they form a sphere. When the wind blows, or we blow on our clock, the parachutes take each seed off on the wind to find a new home.
Dandelions have thick, deep tap roots, and can thrive in extremely poor, disturbed soils. They can spread by root (even a piece of root) as well as via wind dispersal.
Dandelions are not what most people want in their lawns, and they’re hard to get rid of once they’re there! Many folk wage constant battles to rid their gardens of dandelions. Efforts to dig around them or pull them up will likely be unsuccessful (you’re more likely to break the dandelion and fall over backwards…). Spraying with chemical dandelion killer can be very successful, but is also pretty bad for the environment.
So, what if instead you decided to take the stress-free option, and leave them where they are? What benefits would there be?
Dandelions for wildlife
Well for a start, that bright yellow colour really cheers you up. One is nice, but a yard full is blissful.
Then there are the benefits to wildlife. Dandelions are a great sort of pollen and are fantastic for all sorts of insects - flies, hoverflies, bees, ladybirds and so on. And of course, this leads to insect-eating birds and bats benefiting, too.
They are particularly needed by insects and other wildlife at the start of spring, when there are not many other flowering plants around.
Dandelions as food
Dandelions are also edible, and are herbal and medicinal champions.
People use all the parts of the plant - flower, leaves, stem and root. As foraging has experienced something of a revival in recent years, dandelion eating has become more popular.
The leaves can be eaten raw, or steamed like spinach. Some people think they’re delicious, though they're a bit too bitter for me.
Dandelion salad recipe
The flower is particularly versatile. Dandelion tea can be made by picking the petals, steeping them in water and serving either hot or cold, with plenty of sugar or honey.
How to make dandelion tea
Then there’s dandelion honey. I tried this last year for the first time. My goodness, it’s wonderful and has a real honey flavour to it with an added floral touch.
I collected the petals, and boiled them with water, sugar and lemon until the mixture darkened and reduced to a syrup. Then just bottle or jar! It’s great.
Dandelion honey recipe
Dandelion flowers are also used in salads, scones, cakes and breads.
The root can be used to make coffee with, dried and ground. And it actually has diuretic properties (when I was at school kids would tease each other, saying that if you picked the flower you would "pee the bed"!)
Finally - dandelion and burdock beer, anyone?
Dandelions for health
Antioxidant: Dandelions contain beta-carotene, which can help repair cells, and they also have lots of polyphenols in the flowers, another antioxidant.
Laxative: Dandelions are reported to have mild laxative qualities
Cholesterol: Dandelions contain bioactive compounds that may help lower cholesterol. This has proved to be the case in both rabbits and mice, though yet to be tested in humans.
Weight: It is also thought dandelions help reduce weight gain through better carbohydrate metabolism and a reduction in fat absorption.
Cancer: Some limited research has shown dandelions can help reduce the growth of some cancer types, including liver cancer, though further tests are ongoing.
Immunity: There is growing evidence that suggests that dandelions help to boost the immune system.
Antiviral and antibacterial: Researchers have found that dandelions have both antiviral and antibacterial properties. One 2014 study, for example, found they help limit the growth of hepatitis B in both human and animal cells.
Digestion: Some people use it as a traditional remedy for digestion and stomach issues.
Insect repellent: The milky sap (that turns your fingers brown after gardening) has even been used as a mosquito repellent!
The possible health benefits of dandelions
As with any plant, it’s best to consult a health professional before you use dandelions for medicinal purposes.
Be cautious, read up on their properties and check whether there may be any interactions with medications you’re already taking.
The humble dandelion: Villain or hero?
I think what to take away from this ramble is that dandelions are cheerful, useful and very complex!
Do leave them alone if you can, or at least wait until there are more flowers around before you pull or dig them up.