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Hardy dandelions are among spring’s first blooms

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By Sylvia Brockner

February has arrived, with more snow. If I can be patient for one short month, it will be March and hopefully more spring-like.

People often ask what the first flower to bloom in the spring is. I have always answered with the three earliest blooming native wildflowers around our immediate area. They are the Easter daisy, which often blooms in late February and which is soon followed by mountain candytuft and spring beauty.

They are three of our earliest blooming native wildflowers, but there is one flower that sometimes blooms earlier. It is the common dandelion, which is not a native plant and which some people consider a weed. I was introduced to dandelions as a child and loved their bright, sunny yellow blooms. We were taught not to pick our native wildflowers, but we could pick dandelions, hawkweeds, chicory and Queen Anne’s lace to our heart’s content. Many a bouquet of these beautiful weeds were carried to my mother, who duly admired them, and others decorated our playhouse all summer long.

The dandelion is a native of Europe, but one must admire a plant that has adapted itself to grow nearly worldwide, that is so successful at reproducing its own kind, and is colorful and beautiful. The name “dandelion” came from the French, who called it “dent de lion,” literally “tooth of the lion” and presumably referred to the jagged-toothed leaves. No one disputes a dandelion’s beauty and determination; it is usually the people who are obsessed with having a perfect green lawn who hate dandelions.

A dandelion is the flower most frequently used in botany books to illustrate a composite flower. If you have never done so, take one apart this spring and see how a composite flower is actually formed of many, many flowers, growing together in a head so that they appear to be a single bloom.

Once more, a hand lens or magnifying glass will be helpful. Once you have become familiar with the flower, it is interesting to see how it grows. Have you ever thought you would mow the lawn and cut off all the dandelion flowers before they could go to seed? Well, I have, and it doesn’t work.

Dandelion flowers grow on short stems in the center of a rosette of green leaves, all of which are so low they escape the mower blades. Then the flower stem elongates and produces a puffball of seeds, which stick up well above their leaves and surrounding weeds and grasses, so that the gentlest of breezes will lift them off the receptacle, and the seeds float away on their parachute of down to find a new place to grow.

After the seeds have blown, the rosette of leaves grows bigger and taller to manufacture enough food, which is sorted in its long taproot to provide the needed energy for the early bloom the following spring. On top of all this, the spring rosettes of pale leaves are very edible. These young leaves are delicious salad greens. When they get bigger and greener, they become tough and bitter.

A few years ago when we had our leach field, I walked toward it one day and thought that I didn’t know there were that many dandelions growing there. Suddenly, about half the dandelions popped up and flew away. Actually, they were a flock of American goldfinches, which were gathering the seed fluff to line their nests. They also eat the seeds.

All in all, the dandelion is an amazing plant, loved and valued by many. It is probably the first flower to bloom in the spring in many areas, and it is picked by children the world over.