Mickey Rathbun: Making peace with dandelions

  • Dandelion igaguri_1—Getty Images/iStockphoto

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Last week, when my husband, Chris, and I were walking the dog through the meadow behind our house, he pointed out a bevy of golden dandelions garnishing the new spring grass. “Wouldn’t everyone’s lives be simpler if we stopped treating dandelions like weeds?” he asked.

On the other side of the path was a carpet of purple violets. “No one objects to a stray patch of violets,” he added.

When Chris was growing up in Richmond, Indiana, his parents paid him a nickel for every dandelion he uprooted from their lawn. I’d gladly pay him to pluck dandelions from our lawn, but the price has gone up. We’ve pretty much given up the fight against dandelions. But until he suggested that dandelions were no less charming harbingers of spring than violets, I hadn’t given them much thought.

We stopped for a moment to admire their sunny, open faces. The sight of them is so familiar it takes me back to my earliest memories. Perhaps even to a time before memory.

One of my favorite books when I was young was Ray Bradbury’s lovely novelistic memoir, “Dandelion Wine.” It describes the magical joys of a small town in the summer of 1928 from the point of view of a 12-year-old boy, Douglas Spaulding, modeled on the author himself. Bradbury’s idea of bottling summer’s magic in the form of dandelion wine captivated me. Is there any other flower that so perfectly conjures that ineffable quality of the lazy summer days of childhood?

As a child, I thought of them as “dandy lions,” the circle of gold resembling the golden mane of a lion. It made perfect sense to me. But actually, the English name, dandelion, is a corruption of the French “dent de lion,” or “lion’s tooth,” a reference to the coarsely toothed leaves.

The plant has many other names, most pejorative, including cankerwort, witch’s gowan (a word of Scots origin meaning flower or bud), milk witch and “Irish daisy,” perhaps a British slur against the Irish. The names blow-ball and puff-ball obviously refer to the dandelion’s remarkable seed head, a small globe of downy fluff ready to alight on the breeze.

In various northeastern Italian dialects, the plant is known as pisacan — “dog pisses“ — because they are found at the side of pavements, where dogs like to relieve themselves.

In France, dandelions are not called “dents de lion” but “pissenlit,” which is a literal translation of the English slang name for the flower, “pee-a-bed “or “wet-a-bed.” This supposedly refers to the strong diuretic effect of the plant’s root, which has been used for hundreds of years to treat liver problems, as an aid to digestion and an anti-inflammatory, among other uses. It continues to be a popular natural remedy for a wide range of health issues. I’m not sure that bed-wetting is listed as a possible side effect! (Perhaps I should have titled this piece “Making Pee with Dandelions.”)

Which brings me to the rich nutritional value of the lowly dandelion. They contain vitamins K, A, C and B6, thiamin, riboflavin, calcium, iron, potassium and manganese, folate, magnesium, phosphorus and copper. Fresh dandelion greens have a mild, pleasant, slightly bitter flavor. They can be added raw to salads or sautéed in butter or olive oil, like spinach.

I recently spotted bunches of dandelion greens for sale at Whole Foods. It occurred to me that we can save a lot of money by harvesting our own much fresher and more tender dandelion leaves in our own back yards. Eat your heart out, Amazon!

Breakfast and birding in the Valley

Join Kestrel Land Trust in celebrating spring with birdsong, good food and great people May 19 from 7 to 11 a.m. Expert birding guides David Peake-Jones, board member of the Hampshire Bird Club, and Mike Locher, also of the Hampshire Bird Club, will lead a morning of bird watching. The group will meet at a picturesque spot at the foot of Mount Tom in Holyoke to explore forest edges and meadows and learn about migratory and resident birds. After the outing, participants will head to a beautiful homestead for a breakfast spread provided by Small Oven Bakery. Fee: $25 per person. Space is limited to 25, and RSVP is required. Proceeds benefit Kestrel Land Trust. The meeting place will be provided upon registration.

Pruning 101

The best way to learn new skills is by doing them. Wilder Hill Gardens in Shelburne Falls is holding a practical, hands-on pruning workshop May 19 from 10 a.m. to noon. The class will cover pruning ornamental, evergreen and flowering shrubs, as well as fruit trees and the “small fruits,” including blueberries, currants, gooseberries and raspberries for disease resistance and increased fruit production. Bring along hand-clippers and saws if you have them. Handouts will guide you when you practice in your own yard. Cost: $40. Pre-registration required. Go to: wilderhillgardens.com or call (413) 625-9446.

Hilltown Spring Plant Swap

The seventh annual Hilltown Spring Plant Swap will take place May 20 from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at Cummington Community House, 33 Main St. Bring your extra seeds, seedlings and perennial plant divisions to swap and share. Get new plants for your garden and meet fellow gardeners, seed savers and pollinator-enthusiasts.

You do not have to bring plants to come to this event. People at all levels of experience are welcome, including those who have never gardened before. You will have plenty of time to browse and help yourself to the dozens of homegrown varieties of tomatoes, beans, kale, wildflowers, and many other crops, as well as perennial plant divisions including pollinator-friendly and medicinal plants.

If you cannot attend the plant swap but wish to drop off plants, you may do so any time after 10 a.m. Anyone who is bringing seed to the event is encouraged to list it online using the Virtual Seed Bank. Once you have registered (a quick and easy process), you will be able to browse varieties that other people in the Hilltowns are saving, and perhaps bringing to the swap.

The suggested donation for this event is a sliding scale of $5 to $10.

For more information, go to: hilltownseeds.wordpress.com or contact Sadie at 413-475-2692.

Mickey Rathbun can be reached at mickey.rathbun@gmail.com.