New study reveals why dandelions are among the best fliers — they take to the air in a unique way
Blowing dandelions might have a romantic appeal, but for these plants, taking to the air is of utmost importance. Using their parachute-shaped bundle of bristles, their seeds can spread over more than a kilometre, sustained by nothing but wind power. This is essential for the plant to be able to spread out over large areas, which also helps explain why the plant is so common in many parts of the world. But a team of researchers working in Edinburgh, Scotland, realized that we don’t really know how dandelions are able to fly such a long distance.
Their long fights are a bit surprising because the parachute-like structure the flowers exhibit is, for the most part, empty — it’s filled with air, which at a first glance seems woefully unfit for taking flight. Essentially, instead of looking like an umbrella or a parachute, it looks more like the skeleton-like frame of a parachute — and having a porous parachute doesn’t seem to make much sense.
Researchers found that air does indeed flow through the bristles of the pappus, but the amount of air is very closely controlled by the spacing between the bristles, and this is very important. This particular structure formes a stable, doughnut-shaped air bubble, floating around each pappus. They call this air bubble a vortex ring.