Ask the Nature Lady by Marlene A. Condon: The Common Dandelion

Paper wasps are one of the first insects to emerge in very early spring. They can find nourishment at dandelion blooms, which sometimes appear even during the winter in Virginia.

One of the earliest plants to bloom in spring is the Common Dandelion, sprouting up in fields and yards and alongside roadways.  It’s probably the most recognizable flower in the United States, especially to children who are often taught to make a wish before attempting to blow apart the perfectly formed sphere of seeds that forms at the top of the stem.

Although many people think of this perennial as a lawn weed that is uninvited and unwanted, its bright, cheery, yellow flowers can be a welcome sight, especially after a cold, dreary winter.

The first sign of a Common Dandelion is a formation of irregularly toothed leaves radiating from a central point at ground level (a basal rosette).  Shortly thereafter, a yellow flower head, up to 1½ inches across and containing 100 or more tiny flowers (called florets), rises up from the center on a hollow stalk.

After pollination by many different kinds of insects, a “blowball” of parachuted seeds develops—perfectly adapted to dissemination by the wind or children!

Dandelion flowers are an extremely valuable food source for the first insects to emerge in the spring.  Even though these plants are introduced from Europe, many insects make use of them, content to find nectar at a time when few wild or cultivated plants are blooming.

Other animals, such as rabbits, graze upon the fresh green leaves.  But dandelions have a defensive strategy that helps them to survive, especially in lawns where they will get mowed several times throughout the growing season.  You can observe what happens following each mowing.

Since the “goal” of all plants is to reproduce, the Common Dandelion will keep sending up a flower stalk that, with luck, will exist long enough for its flower to produce seeds for another generation.  If the flower stalk gets cut before it has set seed, the next flower stalk will be shorter—a scheme to make it less conspicuous to grazing animals or lawn mowers!

Eventually a flower head will come up that is completely stalk-less, level with the ground and far less vulnerable to decapitation.  This is a wonderful demonstration of one of the tactics used by plants for surviving the many hazards of life.

If you are lucky, you may chance upon an entire field of Common Dandelions only recently gone to seed, each plant still holding high its orb of silky-haired achenes (small dry single-seeded fruits which remain closed at maturity).  Gaze upon this sight, as it actually is quite beautiful.

It’s only after the globular clusters of seeds have begun to break up that these plants acquire a disheveled look that, sadly, people love to hate.

Naturalist Marlene A. Condon is the author/photographer of The Nature-friendly Garden: Creating a Backyard Haven for Plants, Wildlife, and People (Stackpole Books; information at  If you have a question about plants or animals, or gardening in a nature-friendly manner, send it to [email protected] and please watch for an answer in this paper.

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