In a few short weeks, dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) will be blooming in earnest. There’s usually one week — the last week of April or the first week of May, depending on the year — in which dandelions (from the French dent-de-lion, or “lion’s teeth,” named for their jagged, toothlike leaves) sprout up so prolifically that many lawns appear more yellow than green.
Some folks consider dandelions a pesky weed and mow them down as soon as they can. Some think they are just dandy and intentionally leave them alone for their cheeriness or their benefit to pollinators. Love ’em or hate ’em, dandelions aren’t going anywhere soon.
I am firmly in the love ’em category. Although I put a lot of effort into advancing native plants and their cause, dandelions are an introduced species with a special place in my heart. The reason is simple: I am a parent and environmental educator, and dandelions are so darn engaging for children.
During that one week or so in spring, all I want to do with children of any age is play with dandelions. As I’ve written in a past Earth Matters column, it can be more difficult to engage children with plants than animals, many of which are inherently more charismatic.
Lest plants be forgotten, I try to choose plants with fun features that you can see, touch, smell and even taste in order to facilitate children’s connections with them. Dandelions are one such plant. Here are five ways I’ll be enjoying dandelions with children this spring.
Make a wish! You know this one already. Find a dandelion that has gone to seed — that is, a flower that is done blooming, with tiny seeds clinging to the plant with their wispy parachutes — blow, and make a wish! Countless dandelion seeds will loosen from the flower head and drift into the air, each one using its “pappus,” or fine parachute structure, to help it float great distances.
Each seed results from one individual floret, and there are a great many florets on one dandelion “blossom.” As in many members of Asteraceae — the plant family containing dandelions, asters, daisies, sunflowers and more — what appears as one flower actually consists of many flowers densely packed together. That makes for a lot of seeds — and a lot of proliferation — per plant!
“Curling the lion’s tail.” For this one, you need a dandelion with a long, flexible stem. The flower can be blooming or not. Using a fingernail, slice the stem lengthwise into halves, thirds, or even quarters, from the end of the stem all the way to the blossom. (You may notice a white sap emerge from the stem. This is normal, and while it’s not harmful, you may wish to wash your hands afterwards because it is sticky.)
The stem segments should naturally curl up into ribbons that look like they belong on a wrapped gift! You can put the sliced stem into water to accelerate the process, but I find that you usually don’t need to. This is a fleeting sensory joy, as the stems soon wilt, but playing with the bouncing curls is very satisfying.
“Mama had a baby and its head popped off.” Even more fleeting (and a bit dark), this brief thrill requires you to pick a blooming dandelion with a medium to long stem. Grasp the stem gently right under the blossom in a fist. In fist position, your thumb should brace against your curled index finger just under the blossom. Flick your thumb upward, and the blossom should detach from the stem, flinging away a satisfying distance.
It takes some practice. It’s extra fun if you say the chant, “Mama had a baby and its head popped off,” timing the popping of the blossom around the word “head” and directing the flinging flower toward a friend.
Dandelion crowns. This activity is my favorite. Dandelions lend themselves extra well to crown making because of their long, durable, flexible stems. To learn this activity, I sat myself down with about 30 long-stemmed dandelions and a YouTube video, at youtube.com/watch?v=AEJdALQAXx4. And I’ve taught dozens of people since.
Starting with two dandelions and a simple wrapping motion, you end up with a thick and strong yet flexible spiral of dandelions that can be circled back onto itself into a crown. The crown only stays fresh for a few hours, but that’s all you really need for a good springtime romp in the meadow.
Dandelion fritters. This is worth doing at least once; they actually do taste good! Especially with a little honey. Dandelion fritters consist of just the dandelion blossoms dipped in a batter of flour and egg, and fried in oil. While the frying itself isn’t the friendliest activity for young children, as it involves some quick work over a spattering pan, kids can definitely be part of the flower collecting and of course the eating of them!
Be sure to use dandelions you know haven’t been sprayed with pesticides. When harvesting, leave the stem on the flower for easy batter dipping. Garnish with violets — another edible flower blooming at the same time. This year I plan to use a recipe from Martha Stewart at marthastewart.com/1154244/dandelion-fritters.
For the next few weeks, I’ll be dreaming of dandelions. I hope you can enjoy dandelions with the kids (or adults!) in your life this spring too.