Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) as an understory crop in an apple orchard

Report by Michael Pilarski, April 2, 2016
Friends of the Trees Society, [email protected]

I recently dug some dandelion root at Finn River Farm’s young, organic apple orchard outside of Chimacum, Washington on the northeast corner of the Olympic Peninsula.  The orchard is about 2 acres. There are 29 rows of trellised apples. I would guess one block is 3 years old and one block is 5 years old.  In other words, quite a bit of light is still getting to the understory.

They had planted the trees in tilled ground and generously mulched down the row with sawdust.  As a result most weeds (and grass) were suppressed, but many dandelion came through the mulch and had a perfect environment. As a result it was the best stand and largest dandelion roots I have ever encountered. The average large root was a half pound. I and a helper dug 80 pounds of roots in a combined 4 hours of digging It took another 6 combined hours to clip off the tops, prep and ship the roots. A lucrative haul. I charge $10 a pound for fresh dandelion root which is high for the trade.  You’d get a lot less money from most buyers.

To do this we dug roots out of 4 rows (of the 29).  I estimate we took 20% of the root biomass in those rows since we selectively only harvested roots in the middle of the inter-tree space, so as not too cut many tree roots.  The aeration I imagine would compensate for the bit of root loss.  We are careful when digging to do the undercutting on the side of the root furthest from the tree.  I do much more extensive root digging in my agroforestry plantings with no apparent harm to the trees.  We don’t leave any holes when we dig and carefully smooth the surface.  The plants were in early bloom when we dug them.  Ideally we would have dug them just before bloom, same with leaf harvest. There is an optimum timing on this and we were a bit late, but acceptable. Bear in mind, that the severed roots will promptly send up new shoots and in 2 years time another large harvest can be made.  Dandelions can be treated as perennials even though the root is dug.  Sorta like comfrey or horseradish.

If 80 # was 20% of the root in the 4 rows, that would be 400 pounds in the 4 rows or an average of 100# per row.  Mind you those were some of the best rows.  But if we conservatively say there was 60 pounds of root per row x 29 rows that = 1,740 pounds of roots out there.  If  someone had an order for 1000 pounds of fresh roots that would be a financial bonanza from a “weed” growing naturally  on the site.  No extra work involved to grow it.

What are the other economic opportunities represented by this standing dandelion crop?  There were 3 # of tops for every 1 pound of root.  This week I will go and harvest a small order of fresh dandelion leaf.  I get $10 a pound for fresh green leaf.  Just the nice leaves, no flower heads or flower stems.  There are probably 1,000 pounds of nice leaves on the site.  If you had a market. There are markets for leaves both for edible and herbal uses.

Another little-known crop consists of the crowns which make an incredible kimchi.  Tasty and super nutritious. It is fiddly to process the crowns down to the edible cores, but the price of value-added, dandelion kimchi would be high.

The flowers make an excellent wine and the value of the dandelion wine you could make off that stand would be in the tens of thousands of dollars.  Perhaps the most lucrative value of all the possibilities.  The flowers are also used for salads.  The flowers could also yield large amounts of honey if a bee-yard was there to take advantage of it.

There is a lot better payback for fresh product then for dry product in herbs in general, but particularly so for dandelion.  Dry down rates for both dandelion leaf and root are high. I am going to guess 8:1 and 6:1 ratio for the leaf and root dry-down rate respectively.  The root is fiddly to clean up and it would be hard to mechanize.  I would not want to go into the bulk dry dandelion root business.  Perhaps some dry leaf would give a reasonable return.

This is just one example of an understory crop in an orchard situation. The crop possibilities are virtually endless. Some that come to mind are red clover (for blossoms), asparagus, mints, butterbur (Petasites), comfrey (root and leaf), yarrow and many others.  I will make a list at some point. The ideal crop would not have to have any roots dug and be resilient to disturbance during picking and pruning. Be productive in part shade. Not get too tall so as to interfere with picking or lower apples getting light, kinda cuts out asparagus (but they do well in an older orchard where tree limbs are 4 feet off the ground.  Pick crops that have beneficial interactions with the trees, especially nitrogen-fixation and fertilizing from root exudates, and which have a beneficial pest/predator relationship.

Pick crops that make most of their growth before trees leaf out. Dandelion is a good example as they have done almost all their growth before the trees even leaf out.

In the case of Finn River Orchard, they are tilling between the rows to keep weeds down.  This has resulted in a somewhat compacted inter-row area.  Dandelions are tilled frequently and there are very few, large dandelions there.  All the good dandelions are in the untilled area in the tree row. Understory crops in the tractor path are more limited in number, but red clover would be one example.

Time will tell if Finn River Farm has the time and staff to take on making any of their dandelion crop into an income stream but the possibility is there. And it serves as an example to other orchard growers. Particularly new plantings.