Saturday, June 18, 2011

In Defense of the Dandelion

What do you think of the dandelion? Not much, right?

We’ve got this idea that this hardy little plant is a blight, and collectively we spend millions of dollars and uncounted hours waging chemical warfare against its persistent insinuations into our lawns and landscapes. It frustrates us so cheerfully and with such a sunny demeanor that our ultimate defeat is not just tactical, it’s moral. We are beaten year after year by the botanical equivalent of a smiley face. For certain scowley-faced green-lawn-obsessive guys I know, it’s infuriating.

Sometimes our own ideas ruin the world for us. While we are feverishly poisoning dandelions and pulling them out by the roots, we are often simultaneously enriching the soil of garden beds so that we may plant asters, or daisies, or marigolds, or sunflowers, or zinnias, all of which are first cousins of the dandelion in the family Asteraceae. The family name is derived from the Latin astrum, meaning star. The blossoms of the plants in this clan often have radiating petals, which give them their resemblance to our (and their) favorite star, the sun. Our notions about what’s a weed and what isn’t are what upset us about dandelions — not the flower itself.

If we can ever reconcile the green lawn guys with the dandelion, the world would be a brighter place. But getting them to lie down with their rival weed is a little like getting the lamb to lie down with the lion. (The name “dandelion,” by the way, is derived from the Old French dent de lion, or lion tooth, inspired by the jagged shape of the leaf.) What we need is a child to lead them.

Kids instinctively know that the best bouquets are made of dandelions, and the purest love (for Mom, of course) is proffered in a grubby fist clenching broken-necked yellow blossoms. Their world has not been ruined by these ideas we have about clean hands and dandelions. When these humble flowers are presented to us in this way, our dandelion delusions melt away, and we put the bouquets in vases.

Kids also are great dandelion propagators. They delight in keeping time with dandelion clocks. A dandelion clock, if your memory fails you, is the globe of fluff that replaces the sunny dandelion blossom when the plant is ready to project itself into the future. It consists of scores of paratrooper seeds borne aloft by filaments to weedless lawns downwind. You can tell time with a dandelion clock by huffing and puffing at the globe. The time corresponds to the number of blows it takes to get every seed airborne. One blow, one o’clock. Two blows, two o’clock, etc.

It doesn’t matter if two children reading their clocks side-by-side come up with different hours. It’s fairy time, don’t you know? It can be four o’clock here and six o’clock two feet away.

Our frugal ancestors, who weren’t predisposed to child’s play, also had a particular fondness for dandelions. Almost every bit of the plant has a use. Let’s start with the root and work our way up.

The long taproot can be dried and ground up for use as a serviceable substitute for good coffee and a better alternative to bad coffee — and it won’t keep you awake.

The new leaves of the plant can be eaten raw or cooked as greens. They are rich in vitamin A, vitamin C, and iron. The dried leaves can be used in teas and herbal beverages to aid in digestion.

The milky latex in the hollow stems has been used to treat warts and repel mosquitoes.

And if the sunny little blossoms don’t cheer you enough, you can make them into dandelion wine, which is reputedly a great tonic for the blood.

We can’t do any of this with grass, which raises the question: Why do we favor grass so much over the sprightly dandelion?

It’s a grudge match we will never win. It may be time to give it up.

Courtesy of Curtiss Clark & The Field Notebook, Notes from the Natural World

Curtiss Clark lives in western Connecticut with his wife, Kate, at the intersection of two country roads where many living things cross paths. He leaves home too frequently to work as the editor of a small community newspaper.

Read his blog here