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February, 2013

In Praise of Dandelions

by Valerie

Sometimes the disparity between a long-ago childhood and the here-and-now adult world is truly spacious. In my case the two are separated by not only decades, but distance as well. I cannot remember a time when I was unfamiliar with dandelions. They were Undesirable Weed No. 1 in lawns all across northern Illinois when I was growing up in the 1960s. I have fond memories of using a "digger stick" and removing the almost solid carpet of dandelions from our lovely fine-bladed grass lawn. The soil in our yard just south of Chicago was dark and rich, and it was easy to push the metal end of the tool down along each taproot, press it like a miniature crowbar, and pull out the entire plant, down to its carrot-like root tip. My sister, mother and I would work at this rather pleasant and satisfying task while chatting and enjoying the mild weather of late spring and summer. There were so many individual plants that we could never get them all out, but we liked to tip the balance for the grass, so our lawn, especially in the very visible front yard, would look properly manicured and maintained.

Now I live in Austin, Texas, and lawns couldn't be more different. The fine grass of the north is replaced here by tough plants that resemble crab grass, able to thrive in not soft, loose, fecund soil, but hard-packed rocky dry clay. This is not a climate for sissy grasses! In fact, most turf grasses do not manage to live at all in our lawn. It just takes too much supplemental water to keep them alive. Whether out of conceding defeat to nature or just my evolving preferences, I really no longer prefer a uniform grass lawn that looks like carpet. I now like the botanical biomass under my supposed "control" to be as diverse as possible. It's much more interesting. Which brings me back to dandelions. Yes, we do have them here as well, but they are not terribly common. The few that live in our yard are tough and manage very well with no pampering at all. I actually do cull a few weeds from the mix that passes for our lawn. Any sow-thistle that grows taller than 12 inches gets removed, as do the very spiny thistles, burr-clover, and cat-claw brier. The reasons for their removal are either that they are too thorny or that they produce annoying little burrs that get caught in our dog's fur. But dandelions do nothing noxious, so they have become one of my favorite lawn plants. Dig them up? No way!

Native to Europe, dandelions were intentionally brought to the New World, as a medicinal herb and edible plant. The greens are eaten as salad, while the flowers and roots are steeped for beverages. I never did like the flavor of the leaves, and don't drink herbal teas of any kind, so my fondness of the plants is not utilitarian. There is one little connection, though. One of my favorite books is Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine.

As a plant in a mowed area, dandelions are exceptionally well-adapted. They are perennial, but their entire bulk lies close to the ground, especially during the long, hot summers. Only the cheerful yellow flowers rise above the level that would be chopped off by mowing, and those are only present for brief periods throughout the year. If left alone, they then progress to the fluffy round seed heads, which are also quite attractive. The savvy plants do not just open up their delicate fairy-umbrella seeds during any weather. If it is rainy, which doesn't happen here too very often, the leaves right below the seeds cover them and keep them from being drenched. Only when the weather is favorable do the seeds fully extend, to be caught by the wind and blown away.

Dandelions have one more characteristic that puts them high on my scale of desirable plants: their flowers are an excellent nectar source for bees, butterflies and all manner of other insects. Since dandelions start to bloom in the early part of the year, when there are relatively few other flowers, they serve the spring pollinators well, helping them survive until there are more food sources available.

I no longer have any desire to remove the dandelions from our lawn, and actually prefer them to grass. Their buttery yellow blossoms make me smile, and I enjoy the perfect symmetry of the mature seed heads. I no longer hold the flower under somebody's chin (can't remember why, as kids, we did that; I think we didn't really have a reason except to see the yellow reflected) but I still sometimes blow on the seeds to see them float away up into the sky.

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