Monday, May 9, 2011

Elevating the Lowly Dandelion

Dandelion Sketch
Today my kids and I were walking around our neighborhood and started picking dandelions.  I picked a bouquet for my daughter, Ellie, and gave my son Jake one that had ripened into a ball of white fuzz.  My one year old son tried to blow the fuzz off of the stem, with a little success because most of it ended up on his lips.  My four year old daughter and I sat down and started picking the yellow dandelions flowers apart.  I had never spent much time actually looking at these ubiquitous wildflowers other than to pull them from my yard, but it was pretty fun to do it with a four year old. 

We discovered that when the flowers are in bloom and yellow, they peel apart just as they do when they go to seed.  The flower is actually made of many tiny florets that are yellow at the ends and white and fuzzy underneath.  At the end of each floret is a tiny seed, small and undeveloped, until the dandelion matures into the fuzzy pappus so fun to make a wish and blow on.  The stem of the parachute, called the beak, elongates as the flower matures into the fuzzy pappus, but it is still visible when the flower is yellow as is the fuzzy parachute.  All of the necessary components for life and reproduction are present from the start, though immature.

We talked about how dandelions love patches of ground that have been disturbed, such as the grass and garden beds in our back yard, and we marveled at how they covered a lot near our house so the yard was a carpet of yellow.  Their ability to quickly reproduce is a staggering achievement.  We rubbed the yellow flowers on our hands to turn them yellow.  And we looked at some of the dandelions that were closed and wondered if they were getting ready to open up as a ball of fuzz.  Had I not been walking around with my kids today, I never would have known all of this about the lowly dandelion - which is actually a beneficial weed that is a good companion plant for gardening, adds minerals and nitrogen to soil, and attracts pollinating insects in addition to being completely edible.  Think about that the next time you want to spray weed killer all over your lawn.

Dandelions Near My House
And this got me thinking about my biomimicry classes on Life's Principles.  What LPs does the dandelion embody?  What LPs are missing?

The dandelion is a clear example of fitting form to function (a sub-principle of the Be Resource Efficient Life Principle).  The fuzzy white "parachute" pappus is a marvel of engineering - perfectly designed to catch the wind and disperse seeds over a wide area. 

The dandelion plant Adapts to Changing Conditions and embodies resilience through redundancy on a massive scale, as the field of yellow near my house depicts, but it doesn't incorporate diversity or variation due to its self-cloning abilities.  But it would seem that extreme redundancy is enough to keep the species alive despite hundreds of thousands of humans attempting to eradicate them. 

The plant, of course, is Locally Attuned and Responsive.  It uses readily available materials and energy, namely sunlight, water, and the minimal nutrients it receives from the soil.  It has adapted a long tap root to bring up nutrients from well below the disturbed surface it colonizes, making it a first adapter species that makes the land more fertile and thereby, more attractive to a succession of species with more delicate sensibilities. I know from experience that this long tap root is impossible to pull, it needs to be dug up.  In this way, other species form commensalistic relationships with the dandelion and cultivate cooperative relationships with it, but the dandelion sees little benefit to this relationship.  It is a neutral party looking out for its own survival. 

The dandelion, however, does not reshuffle information (a sub-principle of the Evolve to Survive LP).  With a little research, I learned that they reproduce asexually and their offspring are genetically identical to themselves, which doesn't make sense when the plant goes to such trouble to produce a flower that attracts pollinators.  They propagate their species and survive through mass production rather than adaptation. 

After investigating, studying, reading, and now writing about the lowly dandelion, I have now decided to leave them alone in my garden.  But I'll have to have a conversation with my husband about the yard.

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