Researchers exploring potential of the dandelion

Researchers exploring potential of the dandelion
Katrina Cornish

Rubber root dandelion, or Buckeye Gold as it is affectionately termed, is growing in laboratories, greenhouses and test plots at the OARDC in Wooster.


Most people view dandelions either as golden symbols of springtime or as tenacious invaders to a pristine lawn. But could they also save us from a potential national crisis?

Ohio State researchers in Wooster see the dandelion as more than a pretty flower or a pesky lawn weed. Major research is occurring right here to explore how the dandelion can avert a critical national shortage of a crucial raw material — natural rubber. The outcome of that research could avoid what one scientist calls the rubber apocalypse.

Meet Dr. Katrina Cornish, celebrated researcher and director of the Program of Excellence in Natural Rubber Alternatives at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster. At her laboratory she and her colleagues are cultivating a species of dandelion that could free us from dependence on external sources of natural rubber.

Natural rubber is produced by trees and other plants with the Brazilian rubber tree as a major source. According to Cornish, very little rubber is now produced in South America because of a fatal rubber tree disease. Instead, we import a million tons a year mainly from Southeast Asia.

But the disease that devastated rubber production in South America also could wipe out supplies from Southeast Asia. Rubber trees are grown close together and are basically clones of each other, so they are extremely susceptible to the rapid spread of devastating disease.

Our natural rubber supply is susceptible to other factors that could fuel a rubber apocalypse. Climate change can alter and limit the area where rubber trees can grow. Also, the World Wildlife Fund has placed a moratorium on deforestation of rain forests, halting an expansion of current plantations. Future political developments limiting exports of natural rubber are always a possibility.

Ironically a plant that is only a few inches tall may be the answer to freeing us from relying on 60-foot rubber trees. A dandelion species native to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan could serve as a source of high-quality natural rubber.

Rubber root dandelion, or Buckeye Gold as it is affectionately termed, is growing in laboratories, greenhouses and test plots at the OARDC in Wooster. Although it may look like the dandelion in your front yard, it’s genetically different and can produce latex in its roots.

In 2013 The Cornish Lab Group planted the equivalent of 61 miles of rubber root dandelions in field plots. Although that’s a lot of dandelions, there are many technical and logistical details that need to be explored before large-scale manufacturing capable of producing tires and other rubber-intensive products can occur.

Large dandelion farms are one possibility, but another attractive option is hydroponics. With a hydroponic system, it’s possible to harvest every two months because dandelion roots quickly regenerate after cutting. Hydroponic systems also can stack plants 12 high to optimize the use of space.

The flowering shrub, guayule, is native to the American Southwest and also is being studied as an alternative to natural rubber from the tropics. Cornish notes that if dandelion and guayule crops could be adapted to large-scale farming, we could “add a new cash-crop option for growers and farmers and reduce dependence on rubber imports.”

Although natural rubber is not hyped like solar energy or wind power, it is an essential part of our lives. As a nation we use about 50,000 items that contain rubber, ranging from common household staples like rubber bands, balloons and teething rings to the tires, gussets, grommets and gaskets that keep industry and millions of vehicles moving each day.

A major proportion of our imported natural rubber goes into the production of automotive tires, which are 50 percent natural rubber. Our cars could not travel at today’s speeds or for long distances without natural rubber. Airplane tires require 100 percent natural rubber because the use of a synthetic could risk explosion during the stress of landing.

It’s exciting that a significant amount of the ground-breaking research on rubber alternatives is being done right here in Wayne County. As a result, dandelions are beginning to look more like a natural resource than just pretty flowers or pesky weeds.

Thanks Dr. Cornish for your passion, perseverance and vision.

Email Herb Broda at

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