Dandelions

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Dandelions are promiscuous and can bloom anytime. I see them in earliest spring, well into fall, and once I saw one on December 5 peeking out of snow, with a yellow bloom half-open, as if hoping for a half hour of sun-warmed melting. However, in my experience the great majority will bloom at once, a single gorgeous yellow flush of blooms (often around the same time as the violets), which I remember as occurring in June in upstate New York. Whether because of global warming or the vagaries of dandelion biology, this year in Pittsburgh they bloomed in late April. The difference put dandelion bloom right in the middle of academic chaos for me, instead of during my time of relative leisure in summer.

Our first year in Pittsburgh, I tried to be a good suburbanite and pulled them, especially in the front yard. This year I decided to live with them, partly because I have fantasies of making another batch of dandelion wine. I caught my husband out front pulling them a few times, but neither of us ventured in back, where I had pulled hundreds the previous year.

Normally I would not have bothered pulling dandelions in a yard, but I have to blame my mother-in-law, who surely wins the prize for dandelion elimination by hand over the largest area. As noted earlier, her yard is five acres. Though only an acre or so was infested, over the ten years of her residence there she has reduced the population from a solid yellow hillside to only an occasional bloom. The summer I was pregnant with our second child, I helped her, knowing that it was less work to help her pull dandelions than to entertain my two-and-a-half-year-old while my father-in-law helped her. So he got the toddler, and I—seven months pregnant—dug dandelions.

With the right tools, it can be an oddly satisfying task. I did have the right tools—a dandelion prong mounted to a rake-length handle, plus gloves for picking up the dandelions. But I may as well confess now that I am not a fan of the feeling of soil on my hands. I'll happily dig in when I'm transplanting, but as soon as I'm done I like to rinse off—so the gloves were more essential than you'd think. Part of the satisfaction with the dandelions was in the pulling itself— insert prong, tilt, listen for the small pop of the breaking root, and pull to see the length of the taproot. Another part of the satisfaction is simply seeing them, camouflaged in the dark green spring lawn, especially once all the easy—blooming—ones were pulled. My greatest joy came from spying those with a number of round green buds, which seemed to be hiding in wait for me to go indoors so they could bloom secretly.

The greatest surprise about this task was that I enjoyed it, even though I don't really approve of it. I felt free to enjoy it because I knew my mother-in-law would be doing it anyway, so I could save her some time by helping her. I agree that a lawn full of white, fluffy dandelion heads can look unkempt, but I also believe that dandelion flowers are the kind of happy, golden, deep yellow that would be highly valued if only they didn't later go to scrag-gly seed, and if they weren't so numerous. Why should beauty be less valued because it is common? The ubiquity of blondes in fashion magazines never seemed to make them any less popular. The ubiquity of football in Pittsburgh hasn't decreased that sport's popularity—and football players, like dandelions, seem to have a most unattractive way of going to seed after their peak.

When we lived in Ithaca, New York, our next-door neighbor used to spray the dandelions in his lawn while wearing only shorts and canvas tennis shoes. At the time, I still had a working knowl edge of a number of herbicides, and I identified this one by smell as 2,4-D: useful in lawns because, by lucky chemical chance, dandelions are susceptible to it but not grass. (Clover is also susceptible, so when 2,4-D was introduced back around World War II, clover was no longer mixed with lawn grass seed mixes. It wouldn't be good business to sell seed mixes that couldn't be safely sprayed!) I'd read the studies: 2,4-D exposure results in higher odds of developing leukemia. As Rachel Carson wrote, "Such substances are so potent that a minute quantity can bring about vast changes in the body." Even the major lawn care companies don't use this herbicide anymore, though it is available in many forms at any place where garden supplies are sold.

When my neighbor came out to spray, I was out in the yard with my yearling daughter, and having him spraying upwind of us was an offense I was not willing to ignore. In New York State, one of the pesticide application laws states that neighbors must be given twenty-four hours' notice before a pesticide is applied, and that day I told our neighbor the law. I'm sure he simply saved the remaining application until I went to class the next day, but in any case, he stopped without a word of apology or complaint. I have always imagined that he wore those tennis shoes right into his house, and put them on the next day, and the next, without a single thought of what they carried along with grass stains.

This was the first residence where we'd had the ability to mow our own lawn, and at the time it still seemed like a gift rather than a burden. Mowing dandelions at their bloom is a highly satisfying way to temporarily solve the problem of them. Their yellow heads pop off so neatly (especially with a reel mower, when they fly in the air above the revolving blades) that one imagines the dandelion fluff problem solved, if only for a day. But dandelion blooms have a remarkable ability to shoot new flowers up and set seed quickly after a mow, as if mowing has merely made way for more sunshine. I've watched pulled dandelions set seed as they die on the sidewalk— plants I know I pulled in early bloom. They reproduce asexually (a type of self-pollination), but they set seed as if asexual reproduction were a process they couldn't resist doing often, like self-stimulating teenage boys. Seemingly the only way to prevent a dandelion flower from setting seed would be to pluck it and immediately set it to brew for dandelion wine.

So, yes, dandelion wine. This concoction has no better advocate than Ray Bradbury: "The words were summer on the tongue. The wine was summer caught and stoppered." There must be hundreds of family recipes for it, and while many are in cookbooks I suspect the vast majority never made it into writing.

One source that does include a recipe is Euell Gibbons's classic, Stalking the Wild Asparagus. This recipe requires gathering a gallon of fresh blooms on a dry day, steeping them in water and soaking them with a slice of toasted rye bread with yeast on top. The recipe contains so much sugar and so many oranges that I wonder what part of the flavor actually comes from dandelions. No matter, it is the principle that I love: using something free and unwanted to make something of value, in this case something I can enjoy with friends months later. How many bottles of wine contain both a good story and a season?

That first summer we enjoyed full access to a yard, when I was in grad school, I had an opportune moment for dandelion wine. First, I had a yard full of blooming June dandelions, seemingly all ours to enjoy. Second, I had some really good drinking buddies, who I suspected would be glad to help me imbibe almost anything fermented I could produce. So I read the recipe, waited for a dry day, and went outside with an empty one-gallon jug, the mouth cut open wide, to collect blooms.

For the curious or enterprising, I repeat here Gibbons's recipe:

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