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THROUGH THE WOODS: The Good, the Bad, the Dandelion

Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

THE DANDELIONS (TARAXACUM OFFICINALE) are up and blooming and are covered with bees, but many of us have mixed feelings about these plants. If you want a perfect lawn without “weeds,” they are a pain in the neck. If you don’t get to one immediately, they put down a root that comes out somewhere in China and you must dig a crater in the lawn to get it out. It also has a clever cup shaped leaf pattern that funnels water to the center and down to the root.

Calamity really strikes when the lovely yellow flower goes into the senior stage and its fluffy white head goes bald in the wind. Hundreds of little seed-carrying parachutes float to the ends of the earth and particularly all around the yard and lawn.

It is a hardy plant that sprouts and starts the process over before you can blink an eye. Most of us hate to use weed killers, and green and chemical free is the right thing and for good reasons. It is the best lifestyle for our children, pets and the earth in general. My house is off the road and out in the country, so I just try not to let those lovely yellow heads go beyond middle age. So far this works well.

It is thought that the dandelion, often used as an herb, was introduced to Europe from Asia, and from Europe to the Americas (I think that perhaps those deep roots came from China and popped out here on their own). The older leaves are bitter, but the young leaves make a free and nutritious salad, though it may take some time to develop a taste for them. Crumble a little blue cheese on the leaves and add a little olive oil. It is delicious. The dandelion greens are good for you too, containing lots of vitamin A, plus B’s and C. To reduce bitterness, you can plant the roots in a row in the garden and, when well-established, cover them with straw for a few weeks. This blanches the leaves and makes them less bitter.

The Chinese are the real experts on the dandelion and have been using them in medicine and as a food for over a thousand years. Some of the uses have been for liver problems, as an antifungal and antibacterial agent, a tonic, and for the kidneys. The French called the plant the pis-en-lit, which means wet the bed. Since the plants are a possible diuretic, it may be unwise to eat them before going to bed. Fortunately, they do not have this effect on me.

When I was a child my maternal grandfather, Frank Wambach (Gramp), always kept us kids out of trouble with jobs that taught us many things and made us useful to our family. Spring gathering of dandelion blossoms was great fun. Gramp’s parents were from Germany and may have brought this spring dandelion wine making tradition with them. I never saw him drink the wine, but my mother said he started making it in rebellion during Prohibition. He didn’t use it or sell it; it just sat in the cellar and aged to perfection. Anyway, he taught us how to do it, and we picked buckets of the flower heads for him each spring. One fall, Gramp and I were down in the cool cellar checking a big crock of wine to see if it was ready to pour into glass gallon jugs. He removed the wooden lid and there was a tiny dead mouse floating on the surface of the wine. He pulled it out, looked at me and said, “do not tell your grandmother.” It was our secret and I trusted him that it wouldn’t hurt us.

In later years we were allowed to taste the delicious sherry-like wine, and it was a mighty fine vintage, proving the value of alcohol and that those antibacterial properties really worked.

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