|Readers can learn more lore about dandelions in The Teeth of the Lion by Anita Sanchez.
by Anita Sanchez
Whether you love them or hate them, dandelions are among the most familiar plants in the world. They're one species that just about anyone can identify at a glance, as familiar to humans as the dog. Dandelions are, quite possibly, the most successful plants that exist, masters of survival worldwide.
Nowadays, they're also the most unpopular plant in the neighborhood – but it wasn't always that way. Only in the twentieth century did humans decide that the dandelion was a weed. Before the invention of lawns, the golden blossoms and lion-toothed leaves were more likely to be praised as a bounty of food, medicine and magic. Gardeners used to weed out the grass to make room for the dandelions.
To get us back on the right dandelion track, here are 10 dandelion-related facts.
1. Dandelions have sunk their roots deep into history. They were well known to ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, and have been used in Chinese traditional medicine for over a thousand years. Dandelions probably arrived in North America on the Mayflower – not as stowaways, but brought on purpose for their medicinal benefits.
2. Dandelions were world-famous for their beauty. Dandelions were a common and beloved garden flower in Europe, and the subject of many poems. In the terrifying New World, the cheerful face of the dandelion would have been a sweet reminder of home. In Japan, whole horticultural societies formed to enjoy the beauty of dandelions and to develop exciting new varieties for gardeners.
3. Dandelions are a green and growing first aid kit. The use of dandelions in the healing arts goes so far back that tracing its history is like trying to catch a dandelion seed as it floats over the grass. For millennia, dandelion tonics have been used to help the body’s filter, the liver, remove toxins from the bloodstream. In olden times, dandelions were prescribed for every ailment from warts to the plague. To this day, herbalists hail the dandelion as the perfect plant medicine: It is a gentle diuretic that provides nutrients and helps the digestive system function at peak efficiency.
4. Dandelions are more nutritious than most of the vegetables in your garden. They were named after lions because their lion-toothed leaves healed so many ailments, great and small: baldness, dandruff, toothache, sores, fevers, rotting gums, weakness, lethargy and depression. Not until the twentieth century was the underlying cause of many of these symptoms realized: vitamin deficiencies. In eras when vitamin pills were unknown, vitamin deficiencies killed millions. In its time, "scurvy" was as dreaded a word as AIDS is today. Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture reveal how dandelions probably helped alleviate many ailments: They have more vitamin A than spinach, more vitamin C than tomatoes, and are a powerhouse of iron, calcium and potassium.
|A Pilgrim woman sowing seeds. Dandelions probably were brought to North America on the Mayflower for their medicinal qualities. Illustration by Joan Jobson, copyright 2007.
5. Dandelions are good for your lawn. Their wide-spreading roots loosen hard-packed soil, aerate the earth and help reduce erosion. The deep taproot pulls nutrients such as calcium from deep in the soil and makes them available to other plants. Dandelions actually fertilize the grass.
6. Dandelions are masters of survival. They can take root in places that seem little short of miraculous, and then are impossible to get rid of, as homeowners have found. Why is this plant so hard to kill? Dandelions are fast growers, the sunny yellow flowers going from bud to seed in days. But they are also long-lived – an individual plant can live for years, so the dandelion lurking in a corner of the playground might be older than the children running past it. The root sinks deeper over the years, and can go down 15 feet. Like the Hydra who sprouted two new heads for every one that was cut off, the root clones when divided; a one-inch bit of dandelion root can grow a whole new dandelion. Dandelion leaves can shove their way though gravel and cement, and thrive in barren habitats.
7. Dandelions are among the most expensive items in the grocery store. The roots are dried and sold as a no-caffeine coffee substitute – for $31.75 a pound. Dandelions out-price prime rib, swordfish and lobster. They appear in produce and other sections, and even at the liquor store. You can enjoy a complete meal, from salad greens to dandelion quiche, followed by dandelion ice cream, washed down with dandelion wine. If you over-indulge, a cup of dandelion tea is the perfect remedy, since dandelions help the liver flush hangover-inducing toxins from the body.
8. Herbicides used on lawns take a terrible toll on wildlife. More than seven million wild birds are estimated to die annually due to the use of lawn pesticides. Thirty million acres of the United States are lawns, and an estimated 80 million pounds of pesticides are used on them annually. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that "homeowners use up to ten times more chemical pesticides per acre on their lawns than farmers use on crops."
|Wine and tea are just two of the many uses for dandelions. Illustration by Joan Jobson, copyright 2007.
9. There's a safer way to have a dandelion-free lawn! Let the grass grow 3 or 4 inches tall to shade out the sun-loving dandelions, or use specialized tools like the Weed Hound to have a thriving, healthy yard that is safe for kids, pets and wildlife.
10. Dandelions are just plain fun. The dandelion seems to be the flower earmarked for children: In park or garden, it's the only flower a kid can pick without getting into trouble. A child in a field full of dandelions need never run out of things to do: Blowing on dandelion puffballs can tell you if it's time to go home, how many years until you get married, or how many children you'll have – and of course, if you catch a flying dandelion seed, you can make a wish.
Dandelions require sun and disturbed soil to thrive. That's why they seem to “look for” human activities: roadsides, construction sites, parking lots – and lawns. Having escaped the herb gardens a few decades ago, they now seem to be on a quest to get back into the yards they once abandoned.
Dandelions probably will never be eradicated, but we can learn to be more at ease with dandelions and other wild things – and maybe even to love them a little.
About the author: Anita Sanchez of Amsterdam, N.Y., has written The Teeth of the Lion – The Story of the Beloved and Despised Dandelion, published by McDonald and Woodward Publishing Company (www.mwpubco.com or 1-800-233-8787. $14.95).