May 26

Species profile: Common Dandelion

Today’s species is no stranger to cracks in the asphalt and is public enemy #1 to all gardeners and landscapers with a desire for uniformity in their lawns.  I spent one lunch break collecting a bagful and discovered that I’m not the only one after this flower.

Everyone knows that dandelions grant wishes.  If you pluck a post-bloom dandelion flower and release all the fluff in one blow, you can make a wish.  Unfortunately, you’re not doing yourself any favors if your wish is to reduce alien dandelions, as these tufts are actually seeds which are very successful at colonizing new and/or disturbed habitats.  They are originally from Europe, but are now very common in North America (found in all 50 states and most Canadian provinces) and East Asia, and are famous in commercials for weed killer.

Distribution map of the common dandelion in the United States and Canada. Dots in the state or province indicate presence. Image credit: www.eFloras.org

Biology and ecological impact of Taraxacum officinale (F.H. Wigg)

The common dandelion is in the sunflower family and form composite inflorescences characteristic of member of Asteraceae.  What we would typically consider one “flower” is actually known as a capitulum and is comprised of multiple flowers held together by a receptacle.  The common dandelion reproduces asexually to produce seeds identical to the parent in a process called apomixes.  There are two stages in dandelion seed production—pre-bloom and post-bloom.  A dandelion capitulum in pre-bloom is a cluster of yellow flowers which will self-fertilize and mature.  A mature capitulum in post-bloom has exposed seeds that are topped by bristles making it look like a ball of puff.  Due to their highly mobile, wind and wish dispersed seeds, invasions can spread rapidly.  In addition, common dandelion seeds can remain viable in the seed bank and dangerously wait for favorable conditions in which to germinate.

This bumble bee didn’t know it, but he was about to share his dandelion with me. Photo credit: S. Sim

A recent study in Asia has shown that pollen from the alien T. officinale can cause reproductive interference with its native relative, T. japonicum, which results in lower seed production in native dandelions.  Lower seed production of natives results in fewer individuals with which to compete for space and nutrients and an increased likelihood of the alien species displacing the native.

Is it really invasive?

Though the common dandelion is not native to the North America or East Asia and can displace native relatives, there is discussion about its role in wildlife diets.  Dandelions readily colonize disturbed and over-grazed habitats, can serve as an important source of food for cattle, wild ungulates, and bears and thus their colonization of some areas such as cattle pastures is encouraged.  However, it has also been shown that they can pose a threat to alpine zones and upper forests through competition with conifer seedlings.  So the question is if dandelion presence and benefit to local fauna is worth the potential loss of native flora.

And of course, they are edible to people as well.  One of our editors is on record referring to dandelions as a “gateway invasive” for aspiring invasivores.  In northern Indiana, we are currently in the part of the season where a majority of the common dandelions are in post-bloom, but they’ll all swing back to pre-bloom soon when I’ll collect more so we can try our luck at making dandelion wine.



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  1. stew

    good stuff!

    any recommended recipes, wine or otherwise?

  2. Sheina

    I have a dandelion wine recipe I want to try, but I didn’t collect enough the first time around so I’m waiting until the dandelions are in pre-bloom again to collect some more.

  3. Lea Cullen Boyer

    Wildman Steve Brill’s Spring Green Recipe that works great with Garlic Mustard or Dandelion Greens. http://greengurunetwork.com/purchasing/purchasing/wildman-steve-brills-recipe-for-early-spring-greens

  4. Beatriz Moisset

    It looks like a carpenter bee rather than a bumble bee. The legs are different.

  5. Karl

    If more people realized the amazing value of these plants they would be scarce rather than “invasive”. The roasted roots make a very healthful and delicious substitute for coffee; the greens are incredibly nutritious and good for digestion; and the flower heads, when covered in batter, make a formidable (though dubiously healthy) fritter. These plants are 100% edible and very good for you. Don’t dis’ the dandelion!

    If you have too many, please dry the roots and send them to me!

  6. Dellwo

    I think you have them reversed…
    Taraxacum officinale (F.H. Wigg) is native.
    Taraxacum japonicum is alien to North America.

    1. Matthew

      Taraxacum officinale is native to Eurasia but has long been considered naturalized in North America. Nonetheless, it can be considered an introduced species, and is certainly an invader from the perspective of lawn owners and gardeners. It is because of this naturalized status and resulting familiarity that North Americans have with this plant that we have suggested dandelions make a good “gateway invader” for aspiring invasivores!

      In regards to T. japonicum, the study we quoted in the article occurred in Asia where it is a native species, and we’ve edited our text to make that more clear. Although invasivore.org tends to focus on invasions in North America because that is home to all of our writers, invasions are an important aspect of global change on all continents, and we try to include information from around the world where possible.

      1. Dellwo

        Thanks. The article appears to be focused on US and Canada (ie the map). The clarification on the quoted article helps.

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