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Early Spring Greens: Dominant Dandelions

Common Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is the poster child for edible spring greens, with good reason: it’s everywhere, hard to mistake for anything else, tasty, and nutritious. While I enjoy introducing people to PEI’s wild foods and do use Dandelions for this, I’m not really a big fan of them or of the #NoMowMay campaign that’s sprouted up around them. Let’s look at the good and the not-so-good.

First, the good. Dandelions are abundant spring greens that are easy to find, collect, and use. They’re a great, safe, gateway plant for people interested in starting to forage. Young greens are pleasant raw in salads, sandwiches, or wraps, and can be mixed with domestic greens if you find their flavour too strong to stand alone. Their bitterness is greatly reduced by cooking, even more so if you change the water during the process. One of my go-to recipes for introducing the forage-hesitant to eating wild is to simmer washed Dandelion greens for about 10 minutes while I cook up a few slices of bacon. I then brown some garlic in the bacon fat, toss in the cooked Dandelion greens for a minute or two, crumble in the bacon and serve as a side dish or over scrambled eggs. Yum! (Check out the Wild Food Recipes section of this blog for more suggestions for serving Dandelion).

Also in the ‘good’ column is Dandelion’s nutritional profile. These greens are packed with Vitamins A, C, D, E, K, iron, potassium, calcium, zinc, and some of the B vitamins. They are higher in many nutrients than our common domestic greens, including Spinach and Kale. All parts of the plant are edible, and Dandelion has been used medicinally for thousands of years. Its very name speaks to its high regard. The species ‘officinale’ was given to plants with extensive pharmacological and culinary uses.

That said, Dandelions have benefitted from a PR campaign that has made them seem more important than they really are. The are not native to North America and are not an essential – nor even a particularly good – food source for native bees. Our early native flowering plants such as Willows (Salix spp.), Poplars (Populus spp.), Red Maple (Acer rubrum), and Beaked Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta) have pollen that is much higher in protein and contains essential amino acids that Dandelion pollen lacks.

Bees need high-quality nourishment to reproduce; Dandelions offer the equivalent of nutritionally poor, mass-produced junk food. And just like us, Bees can become distracted by abundant junk food on offer. It’s been shown that flowering Dandelions can pull Bees away from feeding on nutritionally superior native plants in the area.

No Mow May doesn’t benefit our native Bees, but that’s not the only reason I’m not a fan. Like distracting Bees from better food, I worry it distracts us from better conservation actions. Mow or don’t mow as you see fit. But if you really want to support native pollinators and biodiversity, plant early flowering native trees and shrubs, allow some of your land to be wild, don’t rake your lawn in fall, and wait until daytime temperatures are consistently above 10C (50F) in spring before starting your yard and garden clean up. Those actions will help the native pollinators that are essential parts of PEI untamed!

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