Blue Ridge Naturalist: Harboring Dandelions Is a Criminal Act?

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Dandelions are an especially vital source of nourishment to honeybees in early spring and to migrating Monarch butterflies in late fall when few other plants have flowers. (Photo: Marlene A. Condon)

When I was growing up, people hated dandelions growing in their lawns, in spite of their cheerily bright-yellow blooms. Many people still detest these plants. In Calgary, Canada, for example, the law required local officials to “demand dandelions be controlled and/or killed.”

I have never been able to understand why folks get so upset over these flowers that become such wonderful wishing balls for children when they go to seed. As expressed delightfully in a card I came across, “Some see a weed, others see a wish.”

I guess I have always seen “a wish,” but that is not all I’ve seen. I have also observed the value of this plant to many species of wildlife. For example, the dandelion can bloom, if it is warm enough, during any month of the year.

As a result, it offers nourishment to insects awakened on an unusually warm winter day, when there would otherwise be nary a blossom in sight to sustain their activity.  In very early spring, the dandelion feeds the earliest insects to emerge as the world comes back to life. And, I have more than once viewed a migrating butterfly feeding on the solitary bloom of a dandelion in the midst of an otherwise food desert on a late-fall day.

In fact, the Common Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is so indispensable to our insects that I find perplexing that some localities list it as a “noxious weed”—a plant considered injurious to agriculture, horticulture, humans, livestock, and/or natural habitats (ecosystems). Farmers and nurserymen pushed for noxious-plant laws because they wanted government help fighting weeds.

Although today farmers and nurserymen may feel overwhelmed by alien plants, I can assure you that yesterday they were overwhelmed by native plants in their growing fields. It is the nature of the game that people will always be fighting unwanted plants in field and garden.

Unfortunately, when localities make laws requiring eradication of such plants, the result is often heavy use of pesticides. Strangely, people do not seem to recognize the irony of poisoning the environment in order to “save” it.

But even if pesticides are not employed to get rid of so-called noxious weeds, the end result is a further degradation of habitat for wildlife. Plants considered noxious are typically non-native plants that are better suited for growing in today’s environmental conditions of compacted soil, drought, and both higher and lower temperatures than had been typical years ago.

[Please use the following link to read a more thorough discussion of this topic: www.crozet gazette.com/2015/06/blue- ridge- naturalist-invasive-plants-invaluable- to-degraded-environment/]

These features of today’s environment are man’s legacy to future generations. They are the result of such things as over-development of the landscape (more and more buildings and roads) and the current trend of building excessively large houses that require acquisition of more resources to supply enough energy for heating and cooling them.

As long as people embrace the current mode of living upon the Earth, it is unrealistic to expect that simply removing non-native plants will automatically allow native plants to flourish in those areas. Nor do native plants necessarily do well even when given a helping hand by people. Habitat restoration projects, such as manmade wetlands, have been found to function less well than their natural counterparts.

Do some plant species truly pose such a serious risk to humans and habitats that they should be designated noxious weeds, which carries the possibility of “plant police” forcing you to rid your yard of them? You may laugh at this thought, but there are already over 100 “cooperative weed management areas” in the United States. Individuals work with private and public agencies to try to get folks to rid their properties of plants considered a threat to natural and agricultural environments.

Believe me, these folks take their mission quite seriously. I know, because more than one person has tried to get me fired when I publicly disagreed with their position.

Like Galileo, who first wrote about the Earth revolving around the Sun (as opposed to the Earth being at the center of the universe), my stance is based upon personal observations that tell me what is reality and what is an erroneous perception of reality.

I disagree because it is obvious that people do not understand the big picture. Their efforts not only increase the difficulties of our wildlife to survive in today’s world; they also poison our world. Luckily for me, folks can’t yet place me under house arrest—as Christian theologians did to Galileo—but they do try to muzzle me.

The Common Dandelion is a perfect example of a plant species people malign for no reason other than that they refuse to let go of the unnatural notion that a lawn should not contain plants other than grass.  If it does contain so-called broadleaf weeds, such as dandelions, people accuse the owner of laziness for failing to get out there and poison the whole lot of them.

In Calgary, a resident could be ordered to clean up “the mess” (not my words for a yard-full of dandelions) because, according to the Canadian law regarding noxious plants, “These weeds must be controlled to prevent further establishment and spread.”

Indeed, any property owner with any of the plants listed as prohibited on his turf is supposed to destroy them. Otherwise, he faces possible fines or the cost for someone else to do the dirty work.

I’m happy to report that by 2010, someone finally realized that dandelions should no longer be on the noxious plant list, and therefore “the yellow pest” (not my words) should no longer be condemned.

We live in a world where wildlife is struggling to hang on, expressly because so many homeowners see nonnative lawn grass as the ideal landscape. Forcing them to get rid of “noxious weeds” (many of which are quite attractive flowering plants) that grow well in their yards—and that do feed wildlife—simply reduces the amount of available wildlife habitat even more.

If we truly care about and want to help wildlife, we should not be trying to exterminate the very plants that can feed these animals in today’s degraded environment. Unfortunately, the ideological notion of bringing back yesterday’s environment is so ecologically alluring that far too many people have bought into it—despite the impossibility of achieving this idyllic goal.

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