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  • Writer's pictureJohn R

Dandelions—To Be or Not To Be?

See those brown spots in the photo above? They’re all over our yard.

My first thoughts were, Oh no! Fungus! Underground grub! Incontinent canines!

As it turned out, the answer was even more insidious: Deb.

Over the years my bride has had every good intention of wiping out the dandelions in our lawn. This is an excellent use of her skills as a mitigator of living things, and she usually takes to the task with gusto, armed with a simple garden fork and a maniacal grin.

Deep down we both know this is a hopeless endeavor, as our neighborhood is resplendent with yellow-headed Taxacum officinale growing in drainage ditches, unmowed parkways, and the lawns of dandelion-tolerant neighbors. There are enough dandelions around here to ensure a healthy and perpetual crop throughout the southern half of our state. Those tufty little seeds fill the air like snow flurries.

Nevertheless, every spring as the dandelions start to show their fearsome noggins, Deb’s anti-dandelion crusade begins. Part of her urge certainly is the advent of good weather and the pleasure of being outside after a long winter. And part of her urge is simply to eradicate something.

Deb, who studies the nuances of her craft, had recently discovered that a dose of plain vinegar is an effective herbicide. This revelation was like giving Sweeney Todd a shiny new straight razor. She began to seek out victims—a neighbor’s bamboo poking up in our western flower beds; scraggly weeds growing in our gravel pathways, and Taxacum just about anywhere.

Vinegar made eliminating dandelions ridiculously easy—just stroll around with a jug of white vinegar and bombs-away. Sploosh. Dead. Don’t even have to bend over.

Unfortunately, the kill radius of a splash of vinegar can be considerably wider than the individual target, and collateral damage ensues.

According to the Harvard School of Public Health, the word “vinegar” derives from the French vin aigre, which means sour wine. (I think we can all agree that few things in life are as disappointing as anticipating a nice glass of wine only to discover the bottle is “corked,” turning a promising claret to vin aigre and hanging a dark cloud over the remainder of the evening).

Citing Harvard again (so unimpeachable!), the use of vinegar has been traced back over seven-thousand years to the ancient Babylonians. Back then, it was used as a digestive aid and a food preservative. (Journalist Tip: if you ever want to establish basis for a factual statement, link it to ancient Babylonians. Tough to disprove. Or Harvard, even tougher.)

Household vinegar is made up of mostly water and about 5% acetic acid. It’s touted as a nontoxic natural herbicide, devoid of the lab-manufactured chemicals found in many commercial weed killers. It can be an effective plant killer, disrupting cells walls and causing leaves and stems to wither away. (Stronger 20–30% solutions of horticultural vinegar are available at garden centers—they are very caustic and should be handled with care.)

I was not aware of my sweetie’s actions until well after the deed itself, when the spring rains had enlivened our lawn and the brown spots became obvious. When I asked if she and a jug of vinegar might be the cause of the mysterious lawn blight—and I inquired in a very calm and rational manner I might add—Deb answered with a shrug and a nonchalant, “maybe.”

As a student of Spousal Language Translation, I figured she meant, So what? Get over it. It’ll grow back.

Funny story: household vinegar doesn’t completely kill the roots of several types of common weeds, dandelions being one of them. Leaves and stems, yes, but those sneaky old taproots will remain unaffected and eventually the weed will grow back. Grass, being more tenderhearted, takes longer to recover. Eventually the dandelions will reappear to fill in the pockets of scorched earth, and our lawn will indeed return to its natural weed-filled state.

It’s too bad that Taxacum has gotten such a bad rap for being the transgressor of well-manicured lawns. In fact, the plant has much to offer. Dandelion greens and flowers are perfectly edible and are rich in vitamins and minerals, more so than kale and spinach. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the lowly dandelion provides antioxidants and compounds that help reduce inflammation, control blood sugar, and reduce blood pressure.

The leaves tend to be a bit bitter, it’s best to add a few chopped leaves to a veggie sauté or mix them judiciously in salads. And if you decide to douse the dandelions in your lawn with a splash of vinegar, try a nice balsamic.

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