Many plants produce latex for two primary purposes. First, it prevents insects from feeding on or entering the plant. Second, it prevents dehydration (or water loss) by sealing up the wounded area.
Other common latex producers include sweet potatoes and figs. Of course, the big Christmas plant, poinsettia, is also a latex producer. The most famous latex producer is the rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis. This plant produces the world’s supply of latex for everything from gloves to tennis shoes. The rubber tree grows in tropical areas that are also famous for deforestation, changing weather and unstable governments. Therefore, the price of rubber products often skyrockets without warning. Have you checked on the price of car tires lately?
A US tire company recently announced it is planning to stabilize the latex (rubber) market by switching latex sources. Guess what plant is slated to replace the rubber tree? Yep, the dandelion.
The Ohio State University has studied dandelions for their latex production. The taproot of the dandelion is harvested. The dandelions Ohio State studied were a Russian species which is a close relative of the common dandelion. In 1931, Russian botanists discovered it while searching for new economic plants. Rubber is present in considerable quantities in latex tubes in the long taproots. These Russian dandelion plants are better adapted to the northern United States and Canada. It is exciting that industry is exploring options for bringing manufacturing back to the United States.
Dandelions are also used as food. The leaves can be used in salads. Harvest the leaves in the spring before the plant flowers. Once the dandelion flowers, the leaves get tough and bitter.
Some are familiar with dandelion wine. Thanks to Jackie Ferguson, I can say dandelions make a good fruity wine. It was unexpectedly good. Just the flowers are used in wine making. Dandelion flowers are also important sources of nectar and pollen for honey bees.
With all these uses, this common lawn weed may eventually overcome its stigma of being a weed.
This was originally written by my friend and fellow agent Gary Pierce, Horticulture Extension Agent, in Harnett County. I have expanded on his original posting about this topic.