The Flight of the Dandelion

The common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) comes with a collection of traits that make it a very successful weed. Nearly everything about it screams success, from its asexually produced seeds to its ability to resprout from a root fragment. Evolution has been kind to this plant, and up until the recent chemical warfare we’ve subjected it to, humans have treated it pretty well too (both intentionally and unintentionally).

One feature that has served the dandelion particularly well is its wind-dispersed seeds. Dandelions have a highly-evolved pappus – a parachute-like bristle of hairs attached to its fruit by a thin stalk. The slightest breath or puff of wind will send this apparatus flying. Once airborne, a dandelion’s seed can travel up to a kilometer or more away from its mother plant, thereby expanding its territory with ease.

Such a low-growing plant achieving this kind of distance is impressive. Even more impressive is that it manages to do this with a pappus that is 90% empty space. Would you leap from a plane with only 10% of a parachute?

Dandelion flight was investigated by researchers at the University of Edinburgh, who used a wind tunnel along with long-exposure photography and high-speed imaging to observe the floating pappus. Their research was presented in a letter published in an issue of Nature in October 2018. Upon close examination, they observed a stable air bubble floating above the pappus as it flew. This ring-shaped air bubble – or vortex – which is unattached to the pappus is known as a separated vortex ring. While this type of vortex ring had been considered theoretically, this marked the first time one had been observed in nature.

Seeing this type of air bubble associated with the dandelion’s pappus intrigued the researchers. About a 100 filaments make up the parachute portion of the pappus. They are arranged around the stalk, leaving heaps of blank space in between. The air bubble observed was not what was expected for such a porous object. However, the researchers found that the filaments were interacting with each other in flight, reducing the porosity of the pappus. In their words, “Neighboring filaments interact strongly with one another because of the thick boundary layer around each filament, which causes a considerable reduction in air flow through the pappus.”

The pappus acts as a circular disk even though it is not one, and its limited porosity allows just enough air movement through the filaments that it maintains this unique vortex. “This suggests,” the researchers write, “that evolution has tuned the pappus porosity to eliminate vortex shedding as the seed flies.” Fine-tuned porosity and the resultant unattached air bubble stabilizes the floating fruit “into an equilibrium orientation that minimizes [its] terminal velocity, allowing [it] to make maximal use of updrafts.” The result is stable, long distance flight.

Wind-dispersed seeds come in two main forms: winged and plumed. Winged seeds are common in trees and large shrubs. They benefit from the height of the tree which allows them to attain stable flight. While such seeds have the ability to travel long distances, their success is limited on shorter plants. In this case, plumed seeds, like those of the dandelion, are the way to go. As the researchers demonstrated, successful flight can be achieved by bristles in place of wings. The tiny seeds of dandelions seen floating by on a summer breeze are not tumbling through the air haphazardly; rather, they are flying steadily, on their way to spoil the dreams of a perfect lawn.

Further Reading (and Watching):

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Eating Weeds: Dandelion Flowers

Mention weeds, and the first plant most of us think of is dandelion. It is essentially the poster child when it comes to weeds and one of the few weeds that entire books have been written about. Its notoriety partly comes from being so ubiquitous and recognizable, but it also comes from its utility. It has a long history of being used medicinally and culinarily, and, surprising to some I’m sure, is still grown agriculturally today.

Dandelion is an attractive and useful plant whose main offense is being so accomplished and proficient at staying alive, reproducing, and moving itself around. The principal thing it gets accused of is invading our lawns. With its brightly colored flowers on tall stalks and its globe of feathery seeds, it makes itself obvious, unlike other lawn invaders that tend to blend in more. Once it makes itself at home, it refuses to leave, adding to the frustration. Consider the vats of herbicide that have been applied to turf grass in an attempt to wipe out dandelions. The fact that they hang around, taunting those who care about that sort of thing, helps explain why they are so hated.

common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

As Ken Thompson writes in The Book of Weeds, dandelions are “too familiar to need describing,” and since there is already so much written about them, I don’t feel the need to write much myself. Below, instead, are a few excerpts from a handful of books that discuss them.

“It seems many of us possess a conscious will not to believe anything good about this remarkable harbinger of spring which, by its ubiquity and persistance, make it the most recognized and most hated of all ‘weeds.'” — The Dandelion Celebration by Peter Gail

“Dandelion heads consist entirely of overlapping ray florets. … Each floret has its own male and female organs, the (female) style surmounting the (male) stamens. Stamens are unnecessary, however, for the plant to produce seed; much, if not most dandelion seed reproduction occurs asexually (apomixis), without pollen fertilization or any genetic involvement of male cells. But insect pollination (each floret produces abundant nectar in its tubular base) and self-pollination, plus vegetative reproduction via sprouting of new plants from roots and root fragments, also occurs – so this plant has all reproductive fronts covered, surely an important reason for its wide abundance and distribution.” — The Book of Field and Roadside by John Eastman

“Wild violets are too limp and their flowers to insipidly small, too prone to damp, dark corners, as if lacking upright amour propre; in contrast, dandelions are too lush and healthy, their vigorous, indestructible roots, gaudy flowers, and too-plentiful seed heads all too easily spawned with their easygoing means of reproduction by parachute-like seeds, landing where they will, suggesting something of human sexual profligacy.” — Weeds by Nina Edwards

Charles Voysey “The Furrow” (© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

“Dandelions demonstrate evolution in action on suburban lawns. Over several seasons of mowing, the only dandelions that can flower are short-stemmed plants that duck the blade. Mowing thus becomes a selective factor, and in time most of the yard’s surviving dandelion flowers hug the ground.” — The Book of Field and Roadside by John Eastman

“When you stop seeing them as villains, many weeds can be considered as useful plants and certainly have been in the past. Dandelions produce fresh, green leaves nearly all year round. They make a nice addition to a salad, although most people find them too bitter to eat in any quantity. … Dandelion roots are edible too, and have been used in the past as a coffee substitute. If you can find some nice fat burdock roots to go with them, you could even make your own old-fashioned dandelion and burdock drink.” — The Alternative Kitchen Garden by Emma Cooper

“Early medieval Arabian physicians recognized the medicinal properties of dandelion, recorded in Egyptian tombs and described by Theophrastus. Its diuretic effects are mirrored in the common names of pissabed and the French pissenlit; it is recommended for the liver, kidneys, and gallbladder, and even for the treatment of diabetes. In India it is also a traditional remedy for snakebites and its milky sap is said to cure surface tumors and warts, and even unsightly moles and freckles.” — Weeds by Nina Edwards

I ate dandelion flowers blended up with eggs and cooked like scrambled eggs. Its a simple recipe that I adapted from instructions found in the The Dandelion Celebration by Peter Gail. The flowers taste more or less the way they smell. They have a bitterness to them that is akin to their leaves but isn’t nearly as strong. I have eaten dandelion leaves several times and I like them, so the bitterness doesn’t really bother me. If I were to make this again I would use a higher egg to dandelion flower ratio, because even though I enjoyed the flavor, it was a little strong.