Dandelions are demonised as one of the most pernicious weeds, but hold back on the mowing and you’ll find a whole range of garden wildlife depends on them for food, writes Kate Bradbury
A few weeks ago I walked past a lawn which hadn’t yet had its first spring cut. It was awash with bright yellow dandelions, and each one was peppered with several pollen beetles, perhaps enjoying their first meal of the year. A week later the dandelions were buzzing with bees, but a few days after that, this little patch of wildflowers had been razed – what happened to the pollen beetles and the bees?
As I write, thousands of hectares of such wildflower habitat are being destroyed under the blades of our lawn mowers, and the bees, pollen beetles, butterflies and moths are going hungry. As a weed, it’s one of the most unpopular of the bunch: dandelion tap roots are notoriously hard to dig out, the plants have an almost unrivalled knack of propagating themselves, including in walls and cracks in paving where nothing else would live, and – to add insult to injury – they are often the first flower we see in spring and the last in autumn. The dandelion is bold and brash and unrelenting. But that is why it is brilliant. It’s virtually everywhere and nearly always in flower; it’s the pollinator’s best friend.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), was named after the French dent de lion, meaning lion’s tooth, which refers to its toothed leaves. Other names for dandelion include wet-the-bed and pissy-beds, which refer to its effectiveness as a diuretic.
The young leaves are edible and loaded with vitamins and antioxidants, the roots can be ground into a (quite tasty) coffee substitute, and the flowers can be made into wine (just leave some for the wildlife). Historically, its sap was said to cure warts, while a tea made using its leaves was supposed to help calm stomach aches. Herbalists apparently still use dandelions to treat skin conditions, asthma, low blood pressure, poor circulation, ulcers, constipation, colds and hot flushes.
But back to the wildlife: while in flower for most of the year, the dandelion’s peak flowering time is from late March to May, when many bees and other pollinators emerge from hibernation. Each flower in fact consists of up to 100 florets, each one packed with nectar and pollen. This early, easily available source of food is a lifesaver for pollinators in spring.
Bumblebees, solitary bees and honeybees all visit dandelions for food, along with hoverflies, beetles, and butterflies such as the peacock and holly blue. Goldfinches and house sparrows eat the seed. Yet most of us gardeners miss out on the spectacle of watching wildlife feast on our dandelions, because we wage such a war against them as weeds.
So perhaps we could take a couple of weeks off from mowing the lawn this month, or at least raise the cutting height of the mower? We’ll be rewarded with the sight of bees, butterflies, hoverflies and beetles feasting on the flowers, and goldfinches and house sparrows tucking into the seed. We’ll also have time for more interesting activities than mowing.