Gardening, Rural Living

The Harbinger

dandelions-300x200Simple and fresh and fair from winter’s close emerging,
As if no artifice of fashion, business, politics, had ever been,
Forth from its sunny nook of shelter’d grass–innocent, golden, calm as the dawn,
The spring’s first dandelion shows its trustful face.
Walt Whitman

So many beautiful group-writing posts on Ricochet this month, on the topic of spring flowers. It’s my privilege to round out the total on the last day, and I’m doing so by writing about the humblest of spring flowers, one which is regarded by many as a noxious weed and garden-spoiler, but one which means the world to me.

The dandelion (taraxacum officinale) takes its common English name from the French phrase dent de lion, or “lion’s tooth.” That’s always struck me as odd because the petals don’t look like teeth to me at all. But I suppose a phrase which seems more appropriate to me, crinière de lion, or “lion’s mane,” isn’t as appealing–“crineerdelion” neither looks, nor sounds like something one would want in one’s garden.

Of course, most people don’t want dandelions in the garden, whatever they’re called. But the fact of the matter is that the humble dandelion, which botanists consider an herb, is a very practical plant, with its flowers, its leaves, and its roots all having important uses through history and even today.

golden-dandelion-225x300The greens are edible, either raw or cooked, and are good sources of several vitamins, including A, C, and K. They also contain important minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron, and potassium. They’re at their tenderest and best in spring, and become tougher and bitter with age (sort of like some people I know). It’s true that I don’t eat many of them myself, but the bunnies love a nice dandelion salad, and can chobble their way through mounds of the stuff bigger than themselves in no time at all.

Dandelion root can be dried, powdered, and served as a tea, or it can be sliced and eaten as is.

Dandelion flowers are edible, can be used to make dandelion wine, and as an extract, are often put into skincare products. Dad liked to make dandelion wine–I remember it tasting a bit like cheap sherry, but it was a wonderful project and a lot of fun. I’ve made hand and face cream with dandelion flowers as a key ingredient. That’s fun too.

Medicinally, dandelions have had many uses through the ages. They were known to the Greeks and Romans, and were believed to remove toxins from the body, probably because they function as a diuretic. By the rather forthright Middle Ages, the dandelion had acquired a second name, and was also affectionately known as “piss-a-bed,” probably for that reason, and as a result of accidents when a cup of “dandelion tea” was taken too close to bedtime. Over hundreds of years, it’s been used by one culture or another to treat just about every condition known to man, from constipation to diarrhea, from blindness to cancer. I make no judgment on its efficacy for any of them.

seed-dandelion-225x300Current research on the lowly dandelion shows promise in the form of using its milky sap as a source for rubber (the Germans looked into, and used it, during WWII), and also for dandelion roots as a viable source for ethanol production. I guess time will tell on both of those matters.

For me, the dandelion has one supremely important function, and it’s this:

When it’s still the dead of winter, maybe very late in January, or early in February. Before the first robin. Before the lambs. Before the daffodils; before even the snowdrops. When the bees are slumbering buzzily in their hives, rousing only to stuff themselves with the food I provide. When the tree limbs are bare. And the ground is alternately rock-hard, or knee-deep in mud. When nothing appears to be growing, and it seems that nothing might ever grow again. When everything is dull, and nothing is other than brown.

One day, I step outside, and there it is.

In the middle of my South-facing garden. Very low to the ground, I suppose because it’s too cold to grow a stalk, and anyway, why bother to waste the energy on such a pedestrian thing? What I see is a lovely, bright, yellow medallion, shining like the sun, and reflecting its glory to the world.

The “first dandelion shows its trustful face.”

And no matter how crummy I’m feeling, no matter how bleak the season or how muddled my life, I know that the wheel is still turning, that the winter will pass, that spring is coming, and that light and life will return to the world. Because there are dandelions.

**A note to anyone who’s got the munchies from reading this post: Please don’t eat dandelions growing by the side of the road. Nor those that have been suffused with pesticides and chemicals. Moderation and common sense in all things. I am not suggesting that eau-de-dandelions will cure Covid-19. And I don’t want to be the woman who makes Anderson Cooper’s head explode (again) because one of you ate a bushel of dandelion roots and became ill, or worse, just because of something I wrote.

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