Farmers are always looking for new crops that can provide additional income for them and it doesn’t hurt when that crop is easy to grow and harvest and virtually pest free. Dandelions used to be considered a weed by most farmers but that may soon change.
Most of you have seen the white milky sap that oozes from a dandelion stem when you break it. That sap contains latex. The roots have even more sap. Since WWII researchers have known that rubber can be made from dandelion sap collected from dandelion roots and it was even manufactured in small quantities during the war when it was hard to get traditional rubber.
After the war when rubber was available again and when a synthetic rubber was developed, making rubber from dandelions and other native plants seemed to be less important. But recent developments in the rubber trade have turned researchers back to other sources of natural rubber and dandelions have become the top choice for that research.
Natural rubber has many advantages over synthetic rubber and is preferred for things like car tires. Traditionally it has been harvested from rubber trees on plantations in South America and South East Asia. The trees take several years to grow to a size where they can be tapped, and they require care and attention throughout their lifespan. To get rubber you tap trees and let the sap flow, then collect it, a labor intensive project. A fungal disease threatens rubber trees and has decreased production in many parts of the world where rubber is grown. And rubber tree farmers are turning rubber tree farms into palm oil production or other less labor intensive and more profitable agricultural enterprises.
Because the writing was on the wall so to speak, and natural rubber shortages are becoming common, several research projects turned to developing other sources of natural rubber. Two research centers collaborating with manufacturing partners have made great strides in producing rubber from dandelions. One is the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology and Continental Manufacturing in Germany and the other is Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster, Ohio, working with Bridgestone Corp. and Ford Motor Co.
In Germany a manufacturing facility began large scale production of rubber from dandelions in October of this year. They hope to have dandelion rubber tires on the commercial market within five years. Besides tires the rubber will be used in many other applications that traditional rubber and latex are used for, such as latex gloves.
The dandelions being used were bred from a Russian species of dandelion, (Taraxacum kok-saghyz). It differs slightly in appearance from the common dandelion in that the leaves are smaller, narrower and more grayish in appearance than common dandelion s and there are tiny projections on the leaf bracts that cover a dandelion flower bud. The roots of this species had more latex present naturally.
Researchers used good old fashioned plant breeding by selection methods enhanced by being able to identify genes in selected plants that had desirable traits like more latex and thicker roots to produce new strains of dandelions. They have now developed dandelion varieties that are highly productive but have not been “genetically modified”, which is important for European markets. These varieties are being grown both in greenhouses and in huge fields outside for dandelion rubber production.
Dandelions can grow in temperate climates close to rubber manufacturing plants cutting down on transportation costs. They can be grown and harvested in one year, using mechanical planting and harvesting equipment common to farm operations. Dandelions have few disease or insect pests and as most farmers and gardeners know, they grow quite well almost anywhere.
Dandelion rubber used in things like latex gloves does not cause allergic reactions in people like traditional latex does. And it is thought that by-products of dandelion rubber production can become another source of bio-fuel. Replacing synthetic rubber and latex made from petroleum products with natural dandelion rubber also cuts down on fossil fuel use.
Farmers in America and Europe will soon have another profitable crop to grow, one that requires little fertilizer or pesticide use. They are a “green crop” that should find favor with environmentalists. If you are looking into a new crop to grow dandelions just may fit the bill. Many states are experimenting with dandelion production but to be able to sell your crop there will need to be a facility to produce rubber from them nearby. You’ll also need to be able to access seed from improved varieties of high latex dandelions. Contact your local county Extension office or state agricultural college to see if they can guide you with these issues before planting a field of dandelions. You may want to visit the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center at http://oardc.osu.edu/
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