Dandelion, Friend or Foe?

Dandelions, Taraxacum officinale Weber.
Taraxacum officinale Weber
Copyright © 2002 Roger Banner, Intermountain Herbarium, USU
Popping up here and there seemingly as soon as you turn away, dandelion persists and as it grows bigger, it’s large taproot becomes many a gardener’s foe. With a slight change in perspective, however, gardeners could expand their yield and embrace the ever persistent pioneer plant: dandelion.

First, why does dandelion pop up so quickly in the garden? There are two key reasons you may find yourself battling dandelion in your garden: 1. It is trying to stabilize and cover the disturbed and exposed soil in an attempt to restore and rebuild fertility, 2. It’s deep taproot serves as a nutrient accumulator, where it pulls nutrients from deeper in the soil and brings them to the surface for other plants and microbial life to use. Why does this happen? Conventional lawns and gardens mimic immature ecosystems and as a result, are usually dominated by early succession plants.

In the words of permaculture designer Toby Hemenway, “The bare earth and disturbed soil in a vegetable garden or under clean-cultivated shrubs sing a siren song to weeds, which eagerly cover naked ground, pull nutrients out of underlying mineral and rock, and prepare the locale for more mature ecosystem such as shrubland and forest. A pure expanse of well-watered grass is aching, in natures scheme, for a blitzkrieg from seedlings and shrubs or, at the very least, a spike in diversity via fast-growing annual weeds.” So, the next time you find dandelion or other weeds in your lawn and/or garden, remember, they are working to diversify the space and help mend the soil that has been disturbed.

But for the gardener, it gets better than just understanding dandelion’s role in the succession of soil because many parts of dandelion are not just edible, but delicious! The common weed has been used for centuries in traditional medicine practices worldwide, as a restorative tonic, edible food, and in herbal wines and beers. Dandelion is extremely versatile in the kitchen and can add zip to any meal. Buds and leaves are best when picked young. The leaves are edible both raw and cooked; try them tossed in your favorite stir-fry, salad, or soup. Flowers are great frittered or used in dandelion wine, while the roots are often steeped for tea or pickled. Dandelion root tea is a common health supplement used mainly for its mild diuretic properties. When roasted, dandelion root makes for a cleansing, caffeine-free beverage that can serve as a coffee substitute given a mild relation to coffee in taste.

And the icing on the cake? Dandelions are chock full of health benefits. They are rich in vitamin-A, C, iron, calcium, detoxifiers and can aid with bone health, liver disorders, diabetes, urinary disorders, skin care, acne, weight loss, cancer, jaundice, gall bladder disorders, anemia, and high blood pressure.

So the next time you see dandelion pop up in your garden, don’t just weed it, eat it!

For Utah State University Extension Sustainability, this is Roslynn Brain.


Photos: Courtesy and Copyright 2002 Roger Banner, Intermountain Herbarium, USU
Text: Roslynn Brain, Utah State University Extension Sustainability

Sources & Additional Reading:

Holly Strand, Dandelions, WildAboutUtah.org, April 21, 2011, https://wildaboututah.org/dandelions/

Jack Greene, Pioneer Day Edible Native Plants, WildAboutUtah.org, July 13, 2015, https://wildaboututah.org/pioneer-day-edible-native-plants/

Hinkamp, Dennis, “Take the Bite Out of Lion’s Teeth (Dandelions)” (2001). All Archived Publications. Paper 885. https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/extension_histall/885

Dandelion, Range Plants of Utah, USU Extension, https://extension.usu.edu/rangeplants/htm/dandelion

Lesica, Peter, Consider the Dandelion Before You Dig, Page 8, Contained in SegoLily, Newsletter of the Utah Native Plant Society, March 2011 (volume 34 number 2) https://www.unps.org/segolily/Sego2011MarApr.pdf

Medusahead Rye

Medusahead Rye Infestation
Courtesy and
Copyright © Steve Dewey

Courtesy and
Copyright © Steve Dewey

Courtesy and
Copyright © Steve Dewey

Weedy plants of old world origin threaten natural areas throughout the United States. An invading plant colonizing a completely new area often lacks the insects, diseases and herbivores that kept it in check back in its native homeland. If the introduced plant grows and spreads vigorously, it can spell disaster for the native inhabitants of its new home. With no natural controls in place, it may outcompete native plants and greatly diminish biodiversity. Disturbed or degraded habitats are most susceptible to invasion by Eurasian weeds.

Utah hosts many invasive weeds causing problems throughout the state. One Eurasian grass threatening sagebrush habitat and rangeland is medusahead rye. Medusahead rye probably came to the United States as a seed contaminant in the 1880’s. The seed head is heavy, so on its own, cannot spread far. But the seeds do have a ticket for dispersal: tufted hairs which cling and readily attach to livestock and vehicles. Once on site, medusahead grows vigorously, crowding out other plants.

Medusahead tissue contains abundant silica which slows its decomposition. The accumulation of dead material forms a dense thatch that smothers other plants. This dry thatch layer can also fuel wildfires. In addition, the gritty silica makes medusahead unpalatable, so both domestic and wild grazing animals avoid eating it. Infested ranches can lose 3/4 of their grazing capacity.

Sage grouse are already in trouble due to habitat loss, and medusahead has invaded more than 10 million acres of the sage brush that sage grouse call home. Once invaded by medusahead, sagebrush habitat is very difficult to restore. The best hope is to prevent or at least hinder its spread through management using controlled burns, herbicides and careful grazing. Non-native, invasive plants are among the most serious threats to our natural world and the habitats and species we know and love.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.


Images: Courtesy Steve Dewey & www.invasive.org
Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health, University of Georgia
Theme: Courtesy & Copyright Don Anderson as performed by Leaping Lulu
Text & Voice: Linda Kervin, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Linda Kervin’s pieces on Wild About Utah

The United States National Arboretum. formerly https://www.usna.usda.gov/Gardens/invasives.html

National Invasive Species Information Center. https://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/plants/medusahead.shtml

Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. https://www.fseee.org/component/content/article/1002329

Utah State University Cooperative Extension. https://extension.usu.edu/cache/files/uploads/Medusahead%202-10.pdf

Dyer’s Woad

Click to view a larger picture; Dyer's Woad in blossom courtesy and copyright 2009 Brad Kropp - as found on bugwood.org
Dyer’s Woad in blossom
Courtesy of and
Copyright © 2009 Brad Kropp
As found on bugwood.org

In early May, pale yellow carpets some hillsides of Northern Utah. The plants are a non-native known as Dyer’s Woad. This Asian member of the cabbage family has been cultivated as a dye and medicinal plant in Europe and Asia for 2000 years. Dyer’s Woad produces a glorious blue dye, but the process is tricky. No synthetic dye equals the color and characteristics of woad dyes.

Woad had arrived in Utah by 1932 as a seed contaminant. Now it is a noxious weed. Woad has a number of unique abilities that contribute to its vigor. Being a biennial plant, it spends the first year of life as a rosette of leaves, building reserves. In its second year, those reserves allow a woad plant to send forth a tall, lanky stem covered with pale yellow flowers that ultimately yield up to 10,000 seeds per plant.

Although Dyer’s Woad is not toxic, few animals relish it either. The seeds have chemicals that inhibit germination and root elongation in other plants, giving woad a competitive edge. Woad causes millions of dollars in losses each year, so control is a major issue. Herbicides and mechanical removal are best used against the rosettes, but nature has provided a native fungus that views woad as dinner. This rust fungus is very effective at eliminating or severely reducing seed production. Plants infected with the rust fungus are misshapen, wrinkly, and covered in dark spots. Those spots brim with rust spores. Therefore, when removing woad, leave the sickly plants to infect yet more woads.

Click to view a larger picture; Dyer's Woad with rust courtesy and copyright 2009 Brad Kropp - as found on bugwood.org
Dyer’s Woad with rust
Courtesy of and
Copyright © 2009 Brad Kropp
As found on bugwood.org

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.
Photos: Brad Krupp, Utah State University, Bugwood.org
Text: Michael Piep, Utah Native Plant Society

Additional Reading:

Intermountain Herbarium: https://herbarium.usu.edu/

Washington Weed Board: https://www.nwcb.wa.gov/weed_info/Written_findings


Edmonds, J. 2006. The History of Woad and the Medieval Woad Vat. https://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-history-of-woad-and-the-medieval-woad-vat/4928037

Shaw, R.J. 1989. Vascular Plants of Northern Utah. Utah State University Press, Logan, Utah. https://www.usu.edu/usupress/books/index.cfm?isbn=1417

Welsh, S.L., N D. Atwood, S Goodrich & L.C. Higgins. 2008. A Utah Flora, 4th Ed. Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. https://www.amazon.com/Utah-Flora-Stanley-L-Welsh/dp/0842525564

Phragmites-Utah’s Grassy Invader

Invasive Phragmites
Phragmites australis
Photo Courtesy
Plant Conservation Alliance
Alien Plant Working Group
As found on
Photographers credited on Factsheet

Invasive Phragmites vs. Native

Photo Courtesy
Plant Conservation Alliance
Alien Plant Working Group
As found on
See guide to distinguish
Invasive from Native plants
Photographers credited on Factsheet

Hi, this is Mark Larese-Casanova from the Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.

When exploring wetlands, streambanks, and the shores of Great Salt Lake this time of year, it’s common to see tall grasses, over ten feet high, blowing in the breeze. While it is very abundant, the common reed known as Phragmites australis is anything but normal.

Phragmites was introduced from Europe over a century ago, and is now found in all 50 states and on every continent except Antarctica. It can grow to more than 15 feet in height, with long blade-like leaves. It flowers from July to October, producing dense, feathery clusters of small flowers that are purple while flowering and turn light brown after producing seeds. Each stem can produce up to 2,000 wind-dispersed seeds that are particularly effective at colonizing new areas. Because of this, Phragmites can take over a disturbed area quickly and prevent native plants, such as bulrush and cattail, from becoming established.

Like other invasive plants, Phragmites is successful at outcompeting native plants. Once a plant is established from seed, Phragmites spreads quickly through rhizomes, or underground stems, that can produce many additional stalks. While Phragmites may start growing among other wetland plants, it quickly outcompetes them for nutrients and sunlight. However, the native “Phragmites australis subspecies americanus” does not grow nearly as dense or tall, and tends to not be invasive.

Because introduced Phragmites can quickly grow into solid stands, it can greatly reduce plant diversity in wetlands, ultimately reducing the quality of wildlife habitat. Wetlands along the shore of Great Salt Lake are particularly important habitat for many migratory birds species, some of which occur here in the largest populations in North America or the world. The rapid takeover by Phragmites in these wetlands could eventually have dramatic impacts to the entire Great Salt Lake ecosystem.

In order to combat this threat, wetland managers have tried several methods for controlling or removing Phragmites, including spraying with herbicide, burning, livestock grazing, and mowing. Dr. Karin Kettenring, a Utah State University researcher, and her graduate students are currently studying the effects of several of these Phragmites control methods along the shores of Great Salt Lake. By experimenting with the timing of mowing and herbicide treatment, as well as covering mowed Phragmites with heavy black plastic, Dr. Kettenring and her team hope to find the most effective combination of treatments. With the continual conversion of native wetland habitats to a monoculture of Phragmites, Dr. Kettenring’s research is of particular importance to maintaining the health of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem- one of our state’s greatest natural wonders.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Mark Larese-Casanova.

Images: Courtesy & Copyright
            Jil M. Swearingen, National Park Service, Center for Urban Ecology, Washington, DC
            Dr. Kristin Saltonstall, Adjunct Research Scientist, Horn Point Laboratory,
                  University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, Solomon, MD
            Robert Meadows, Environmental Scientist, North DE Wetland Rehabilitation Program,
                  DE Mosquito Control Section, Newark, DE
            As found on https://www.nps.gov/plants/alien/fact/phau1.htm
Text:     Mark Larese-Casanova, Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.

Additional Reading:

Evans K, Martinson W (2008) Utah’s featured birds and viewing sites: a conservation platform for Important Bird Areas and Bird Habitat Conservation Areas. Salt Lake City, Utah

Kulmatiski A, Beard KH, Meyerson LA, Gibson JR, Mock KE (2010) Nonnative Phragmites australis invasion into Utah wetlands. Western North American Naturalist 70:541-552

Long, A.L., C.M.U. Neale, and K.M. Kettenring. 2012. Management of Phragmites in the Great Salt Lake watershed. Final report to the Utah Department of Natural Resources, Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands. 15 pp.