It’s spring, and after a long, cold, dreary winter in New Mexico, I’m ready for it. And even though we’ve had a couple of late snowstorms and the trees are only just now beginning to get leaves, dandelions are already growing in the cracks of the rock wall next to my sidewalk. I call them a welcome sight.
I love dandelions; I confess that they’re my favorite flowers. I love to see their golden heads popping up all over the politically incorrect expanses of Kentucky bluegrass. I love their dark green tooth-shaped leaves, which are reputed to have a higher vitamin A content than any other garden vegetable. I love that they have the audacity to grow anywhere, even in the face of intense hatred and repeated attempts to poison them.
What do dandelions have to do to get respect? They are beautiful, delicious, nutritious, and grow easily everywhere. Maybe that’s their problem: They’re too easy. Like my other favorites -- daisies, bachelor’s buttons, sunflowers -- they don’t require nurturing. Dandelions volunteer and flourish in the dry desert heat, making the most of what little water is available. They grow in parking lots, along the highway, in abandoned vacant lots -- places where other flowers would be ashamed to be seen.
Of course, my love for dandelions has created some problems. They’ve made me disdain flowers I’m supposed to admire. I find cut flowers depressing since they are doomed and know it. All you can possibly do is replace their water, add a little sugar and an aspirin, and watch them die. But a yard full of dandelions is a joy to behold at every stage: growing, budding, blossoming, and then turning into the most ethereal seed heads. When I was a child I picked them, but they didn’t last very long in a glass of water. I soon learned that they could only be enjoyed in their natural setting.
I came home from work one day years ago to find that a well-meaning neighbor had “weeded” my yard, digging up or weed-whacking all my beloved dandelions. I reluctantly thanked the neighbor; after all, his heart was in the right place even if his weed-whacker wasn’t. And I was, at the time, new to the community and didn’t want to appear any more eccentric than absolutely necessary.
Why are some plants considered “weeds” and not “native plants that volunteer?” Why do gardeners seem to love the plants that have to be coaxed, prodded, and begged into growing and despise the ones that pop up everywhere with no encouragement at all?
This may be hard to believe, but I once ordered dandelion seeds from a catalog. They were described as a variety with large leaves perfect for salads. Ironically, the seeds didn’t grow. Is it possible that dandelions are just too independent to let someone else decide when, how, and where they will grow? Perhaps that's what I find so admirable about them: They thrive best when free to choose their own environment.
I would love to make some dandelion wine, but I’ve never had enough dandelions to harvest them for that purpose. Nor have I managed to catch them at the right stage to eat the leaves. I think it’s my reluctance to harvest them that has prevented me from making salad or wine. I just can’t bring myself to tear the petals apart and cook them. How could the pleasure of eating them possibly exceed the pleasure of seeing them grow in my yard?
Yet every part of the dandelion plant is edible. The leaves are delicious in salads or steamed like spinach. The unopened buds can be steamed and served with butter. The blossoms make delicious, sweet wine. The roots can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute. Dandelions are also cultivated for their medicinal properties.
Maybe I can persuade some people to take a new look at the lowly dandelion. Instead of trying so desperately to eradicate them, we might rediscover the many medicinal uses that the herbalists have known about for centuries. And if we viewed them as a dietary option, we might find a readily available and inexpensive alternative to some of the vegetables we pay such high prices for at the supermarket. There are so many dandelions to love -- if only we are willing to succumb to their easy charm.
Jeannie Pomeroy is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes in Raton, New Mexico.