America is a nation of people who migrated here from somewhere else. That fact has got me thinking of another, albeit non-human, migrant from long ago. In 1672 the dandelion first arrived in North America, hidden in hay bales the pilgrims stowed away on boats to feed their cattle.
The European invasion of North America was ecological as well as cultural. Colonists not only brought personal belongings and enough food to survive the first year, but livestock and the fodder to feed them. Unknown to these settlers, the seeds of the dandelion were embedded in the hay they brought to feed their livestock and mixed in with the grains they sowed on the land they cleared. Europeans didn’t just bring their crops to the new world; they also brought their weeds.
Homeowners trying to grow the perfect lawn despise dandelions and spend millions of dollars on herbicides to control its spread. But are dandelions so bad? The young leaves are widely collected for salad greens in the early spring (they are rich in vitamins and minerals), dandelion wine can be made from the fermented flowers, and in the fall the roots can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute. And dandelion flowers are one of the most vital early spring nectar sources for a wide host of pollinators.
Is there any length of time after which a non-native species can achieve native status? Should there be a statute of limitations for plants after which they can be considered a de facto native species? To put it another way: can the ubiquitous dandelion ever achieve native status or will it forever be considered an alien?
In a globalized world, the boundaries that separate countries are being breached not only by humans looking for a better life, but also by plants and animals seeking new opportunities in a rapidly changing world. Yank or spray all you want; the dandelion is here to stay. And while it’s considered an invasive species by some people, it is long past time to formally recognize the ubiquitous weed as a naturalized American plant. This amnesty has been a long time in the making.