Photograph by Eric Baccega / Nature PL

Spreading Seeds

While some might consider them a weed, dandelions have a lot to teach us about persistence—and the power of a single seed.

“What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have never been discovered.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Happy Friday, readers. Today’s newsletter is a special one, as it marks the 150th edition of The Overview. Over the course of the last three years, it has been an honor to hold this space and connect with you over a common love for this world we inhabit. The topics for this newsletter are always rooted in a personal place for me, and I would be lying if I said I haven’t been feeling a bit existential as of late. Wondering what it’s all for led me to an unexpected subject for this edition, one that was popping up in my periphery all week: dandelions.

 

If you or anyone you know has ever considered themselves a gardener, chances are you’ve heard them complain about this particularly pernicious perennial. The name dandelion is derived from the French “dent de lion,” meaning lion’s tooth, after their canine-shaped leaves. Based on reputation alone, you would think these wildflowers were willfully vicious, but there’s more to the dandelion’s story. After all, a plant being labeled a weed has nothing to do with its biology—it means only something unwanted, that grows where it’s not intended.

 

The first thing to know about dandelions is that they have deep roots. A dandelion’s taproot is thick and sturdy, and can extend down as deep as 15 feet into the soil. This is one reason why the Taraxacum officinale is considered such a nuisance: uprooting it is no easy task. When the root reaches the top of the soil, a compact crown is formed, from which multiple stalks grow up toward the sky, anywhere from three to 12 inches. All of its leaves unfurl in a basal formation, meaning they reach out from one center—the crown of the root—rather than the stalks.

 

While dandelions are seemingly everywhere today, that wasn’t always the case. Originally native to Europe and Asia, they have made their way to temperate regions the world over, with their roots having now firmly taken hold in North America, Australia, New Zealand, and even parts of the Middle East like Turkey. They can grow just about anywhere, from fields and forests to barren wastelands and burn sites. They can even be found making their way through walls and emerging from cracks in concrete. In other words: dandelions are persistent.

 

The ubiquity of these flowers is largely due to their unparalleled ability to propagate. Who hasn’t picked a stalk and blown on it, watching it scatter in the breeze? Each seed (technically a fruit) carries with it a feathery parachute that allows it to travel as far as hundreds of miles depending on wind conditions. And they reproduce asexually, meaning that a single dandelion can quickly spread wherever it lands. Although, it’s worth noting that what we consider to be a single dandelion flower is actually made up of multiple individual flowers—many, yet one.

 

Dandelions play an integral role in the ecosystems they land in. Because they are among the first to flower in the spring, they are an important early source of nourishment for many creatures including bees, beetles, butterflies and even birds like sparrows and goldfinches. Humans rely on them, too; herbalists throughout the ages have used them as medicine to heal upset stomachs, asthma, and skin conditions. Their young leaves are rich in vitamins and antioxidants, and their flowers can be turned into wine, while their roots make a delicious coffee alternative.

 

When I feel existential, I think of dandelions. As I spread my words to the wind, I’m reminded that it’s not for me to know where they will go. Ideas are like that, I think: we share them never knowing where they will land. Sometimes they take root in places we think it impossible for anything to grow, persisting against the grain, nourishing the life around them. As small as I sometimes feel, dandelions remind me that all it takes is one—that change spreads through seeds much smaller than you and me. It even spreads through weeds.

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