Dandelions: Super-Power Flowers
(Golden Dandelion competition 2020 is here)
A Brimstone Butterfly – often the first on the wing in spring – seeks out life-giving nectar from a Dandelion flower. (Picture courtesy of Rachel Scopes, @r_scopes)
The Dandelion is a flower with wildlife super-powers, providing abundant nectar and pollen, and seeds stems, roots and leaves giving food to a wide range of pollinators, moths, butterflies, birds and even people. Yet it’s disappearing from many towns, verges and gardens due to a chemical ‘Lawnageddon’ (see video below). So the Fairyland Trust is asking everyone to cut out the spray, leave dandelions to finish flowering before any mowing, and cherish and encourage these wonderful plants.
We are also running a competition to find the garden or other spot with the densest patch of dandelions in the UK. The winners will receive the Golden Dandelion trophy – enter here.
A wide range of insects love the Dandelion for its super-abundant nectar (it’s flowers are edible to humans and are said to taste of honey) and if you grow Dandelions in your garden you will be helping bumble and other sorts of bees, butterflies, moths, other insects and birds.
Please join our campaign to celebrate and encourage Dandelions to make our gardens a haven for nature.
Three Ways To Get More Dandelions
- wait for then to arrive and then do not spray them – start by not cutting your lawn and see what comes up. It might be a lot more than just dandelions – daisies, clover and other wildflowers may also spring up when they get the chance.
- collect seed, singe or rub off the ‘parachute’ bits, and plant them somewhere sunny (many seeds germinate in year 2)
- buy some Dandelion plug plants by post from British Wild Flowers and Plants (as of April 2020 closed due to Covid but have a look at their great website and buy flowers soon)
You don’t need a lawn of course – Dandelions will do just fine in a pot.
MORE about why Dandelions are marvellous
and what you can do to help them
An old name for Dandelion is Fairy Clocks and it’s traditional to make a wish when blowing seeds from a ‘Fairy Clock’. It’s said that the flying seeds become fairies and carry your wishes.
Flower-expert Richard Mabey explains in his book Flora Britannica that ‘the number of blows’ on a Dandelion clock ‘needed to remove all the seeds gives the hour. If you catch one on the wing, you can make a wish’.
Girls blowing Dandelion seed ‘parachutes’ and making wishes at a Fairy Fair.
Less poetically, as many children have discovered, you can also use it to make a ‘raspberry’ or farting noise. Here are the instructions given by Mabey: ‘‘Take a long stalk of dandelion, remove the head, and split one downwards approximately half an inch. Place the split end inside your mouth and blow gently. A raspberry should be made”.
Great For Pollinators
Dandelions (Taraxacum) and its relative Cats Ear (Calendula), are among the very best insect nectar plants. Just by letting dandelions grow and flower, you will be helping wildlife. Some gardeners think of them as ‘weeds’ but they are far better for nature than most cultivated garden plants.
Good For Butterflies
A Small Tortoiseshell butterfly feeding on a Dandelion. This butterfly needs help – it is in rapid decline. (Photo courtesy of @CreweCitizen)
Butterflies like the Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell, Brimstone, Green Veined White, Orange Tip and Holly Blue love Dandelion nectar which is available early in the year
Birds such as goldfinches like to eat Dandelion seeds
Good for Moths
Dandelions are food for at least 46 different types of moth (and that’s just the bigger types) whose ‘caterpillars’ munch on the leaves, stem or roots as youngsters
the Garden Tiger moth used to be common in gardens – now it’s rarely seen. It’s ‘caterpillar’ eats Dandelions. (Photo credit Temple of Mara Creative Commons)
Moths that eat Dandelions as caterpillars …
Angle Shades, Beaded Chestnut, Bird’s Wing, Black Rustic, Brown Rustic, Brown Rustic, Chestnut, Dark Chestnut, Dark-barred Twin-spot Carpet, Dotted Border Wave, Feathered Footman, Feathered Ranunculus, Garden Tiger, Grey Chi, Jersey Tiger, Knot Grass, Large Ranunculus, Lewes Wave, Mottled Rustic, Mottled Rustic, Mullein Wave, Muslin Moth, Nutmeg, Plain Golden Y, Plain Wave, Porter’s Rustic, Porter’s Rustic, Portland Ribbon Wave, Powdered Rustic, Riband Wave, Rosy Rustic(root/stems), Ruby Tiger, Satin Wave, Silver Y, Silver Y, Slender Burnished Brass, Speckled Footman, The Rustic, The Rustic, The Uncertain, Treble Brown-spot, Treble Lines, Vine’s Rustic, Vine’s Rustic, Wood Tiger
The yellow flowers become white ‘dandelion clocks’ of seeds on little ‘parachutes’ which float on the wind and can spread the plant as much as 500m
Flowers That Follow The Sun
Each Dandelion flower is a miracle of nature’s engineering and is made up of up to 200 individual ‘ray florets’. It turns to face the sun throughout the day, which can help you tell the time.
Dandelions love outdoor sun and will close up and die if cut and put in a vase. The flowers close up on cold and cloudy days.
Good To Eat
It used to be common for people used to grow dandelions for winter salad and for chemists to turn into medicines. Dandelion leaves are rich in iron, potassium and zinc.
Tortoises, guinea pigs, rabbits and sheep like Dandelions to eat
The name ‘dandelion’ comes from ‘teeth of the lion’ or in French, dent-des-lion, probably referring to the serrated leaves but the scientific name Taraxacum comes from the Greek for ‘remedy’ and ‘disorder’ because it has long been used as a tonic for kidneys, liver and other health benefits
Over 200 Types
Dandelions are not one species but over 200 ‘microspecies’ that look similar but each have particular needs and lifestyle.
Hardy But Killed by Chemicals
The Dandelion is often one of the first flowers in bloom in spring and one of the last in the late autumn. In Britain it grows on land from 2,700 feet up down to sea level and from wild areas to cracks in city concrete. It has a long ‘tap root’ which enables it to find water and store food (and makes it hard to get rid of by digging up), can live up to 13 years, and can reproduce sexually or by self-fertilization or re-grow from root fragments. It’s tough but is being wiped out by herbicide sprays which are promoted to gardeners who end up with a sterile ‘green concrete’ lawn without wildlife. Fortunately more and more people are saying ‘no’ to garden chemicals and so helping our wildlife.
Chemicals like these are wiping out wildflowers in gardens that insects and birds rely upon.
Dandelions in Culture
Dandelions have always been loved by many people for their beauty as well as usefulness, and are mentioned in many stories.
In his classic book The Englishman’s Flora, Geoffery Grigson notes that local and old names for Dandelions include: bum-pipe, Burning fire, Clock, Clocks and Watches, Fairy Clocks, Timeteller, Piss-a-bed (as it makes you pee) and in East Anglia, ‘Dindle’.
From the side, the flower looks a bit like an old fashioned chimney sweep brush
In his ‘Cymbeline’ play set in Ancient Britain, Shakespeare writes
‘Golden lads and girls all must
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust’
‘Golden Lads’ is a Warwickshire dialect name for a Dandelion flower-head and ‘chimney sweep’ is the local name for a dandelion seed-head.
Grigson says that “You can tell the time, and foretell the future, by blowing on the seed head” and it has many uses but “there is one thing for which dandelions are useless: pick them and arrange them in a bowl, and they soon close up. They need the full sun out of doors”.
Mabey also points out that in Cambridgeshire the poor used to harvest Dandelions on a large scale to sell to chemists who made them into liver and kidney tonic, and that in the C19th they were grown by the gentry for winter salad and against gout caused be excessive drinking of port, as they were good for ‘flushing out the kidneys’.
These days with wild food ever more popular, the leaves are sometimes served in sandwiches, being tastier than lettuce, and used in mozarella pie, pizza, and, fried as crisps. Dandelions are also famous for being used to make wine and as a coffee substitute.
Going Chemical Free
PAN, the Pesticides Action Network is running a Pesticide-Free Towns campaign. Tens of thousands of tonnes of herbicides of nearly 40 chemical types are sprayed on ‘amenity grassland’ such as parks and verges each year. Councils in the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, Wadebridge, Glastonbury and Lewes have all signed up and are avoiding glyphosate sprays. (Glyphosate is the active ingredient in dandelion-killers such as Roundup but any herbicide which kills dandelions is also likely to kill other wildflowers. If dandelions are a problem in vegetable patches some organic gardeners recommend using horticultural strength vinegar (20% acetic acid) but be sure to follow safety instructions).
Help Us Spread The Word!
Help save insects and other wildlife by showing others that allowing wildflowers in your garden attracts insects and birds.
Why not take a photograph of any insects you see visiting your dandelions and share them with us ? We’ll then share them on our website, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages. A warm sunny day is best. Bees, beetles, hoverflies and butterflies all visit Dandelions.
A hungry bumble bee arrives on an uncurling Dandelion – Photo courtesy of George Pilkington – see lots of things you can do to help nature in your garden including George’s great bumblebee nest boxes at https://nurturing-nature.co.uk
Our Dandelion Fairy
Have you seen our new video Lawnageddon ? It’s the story of one man who dreams of the ‘perfect lawn’, before he wakes up to the importance of Dandelions for nature … have a look
Lawnageddon was made for the Fairyland Trust by a team of volunteers. Our thanks go to them and Ben Partridge and his mum Jo for letting us borrow their garden – and Ben’s lawn-mower.
Help our campaign !
enter the Golden Dandelion Competition
share the video as widely as you can (also find it on our Facebook page) or Instagram or Twitter @fairylandtrust
send us your photos of bees or other insects on dandelions (and don’t forget to say where they are from) – or share them on our social media
grow some Dandelions where you live !