Warning, warning to all delicate ears! I am about to utter something (apparently) shocking: I love dandelions.
I had no idea mine was a love that dare not speak its name. Then, I was invited to a barbecue in a neighborhood that prides itself on smooth grass lawns that cascade from every front porch down to the street — a street (I might add) that looks as if it is swept for the pleasure of the children who scoot around the cul-de-sac on their trikes and bikes. I didn't know many people at the gathering, so I was engaging in one of my favorite social activities; I was eavesdropping (or as little Fern used to call it "earsdropping").
A man with a beer says to his neighbor: "You know what I found in my lawn?"
The neighbor shakes his head. Uh-oh. He knows what's coming and doesn't even want to hear it.
"Yep," confirms the man with the beer, "A dandelion."
"Did you call The Guy?" the neighbor asked.
Oh, he called The Guy all right. I gathered that The Guy was responsible for the care of the lawns (which tells you how far I was from my comfort zone, a zone where I am responsible for nagging Birch to mow occasionally). I felt sorry for The Guy. He promised to get that filthy weed out of there and to redouble his chemical efforts to make sure another one didn't pop up its downy head anywhere near the cul-de-sac.
Really? Really? I mean, it's a sunny-bright flower that gives the bees something to buzz about long before the rest of the blossoms wake up to spring. Then it turns into a puffball — a puffball! — which happens to be one of the most amazingly engineered seed delivery systems on the planet and the best natural toy ever.
And the chickens look beautiful pecking insects on a stretch of new green tufted with yellow buttons.
Not to mention, dandelions are food! Food! Dandelions are one of the earliest greens after a long winter; they were prized by our grandparents who didn't have Whole Foods down the street. Just ask Laura Ingalls Wilder. Dandelions can be soup, salad, even wine.
The dandelion's long taproot digs way down, even into clay, breaking up the soil like a little tiller, and then it sucks those minerals up to the surface where other plants use them to thrive. I read somewhere (but can't remember where) that it's great to compost dandelion roots; all those beneficial minerals end up in your garden. (I'm assuming it had better be a hot compost or the roots might start growing again, but maybe one of the real gardeners around here will comment and make us all wiser.) And — I have this on the authority of my sweet daughter Blossom — you know that white milky stuff that oozes out of a dandelion stem? That stuff makes warts go away! Blossom has the wart-free big toe to prove it.
Okay, I understand that dandelions can get into places where a gardener doesn't want them. I have one under a rose bush that seems bigger than the rose bush. And the rose bush has thorns, and I have to go through the thorns to get to the dandelion. So the dandelion wins.
But I am not going to poison the thing. We live on a river we love, a river where our children float twig boats and paddle about in the deep pool. It's a river filled with trout. Great blue herons nest along it. Blossom and I once got very still in our shared innertube and watched a heron scoop a fish from the current and swallow it whole.
We do what we can to protect our river, and we know that anything we might spray on the dandelions is going to end up there.
We call it our river because we hear it at night when we're falling asleep and because we hike to its waterfalls with picnic lunches and because we float on the current and watch the birds. We call it ours, but really that river belongs to all of us — you and me and the children who aren't here with us yet. It's such a small, precious planet we share. These days, we're reminded of that in heartbreaking ways. The weather is weird. Oil gushes into the Gulf, threatening life and livelihoods far beyond where the leak is. Just last weekend, we gardened in the gloom of smoke from forest fires in Quebec -- a day's drive away.
We are all neighbors — me and you (wherever you are) and that man with the dreadful dandelion in his lawn. I wonder sometimes how it happened that we have transformed good things (like dandelions) into bad things that we combat with truly bad things (toxic chemicals) that in turn threaten other good things (the water we depend on for life itself).
Fern was riding in the car recently, watching the world go by. It was when spring was new and suddenly green. Some of the lawns had dandelions scattered merrily in the grass. Some didn't. "I miss the dandelions," she said as we swept through a manicured neighborhood. "It doesn't look natural."
It isn't natural. Dandelions are adapted to be wherever their seeds can drift. So maybe we all should let ourselves love them as we did when we were little: Pick a puffball, pucker up, blow. And if one of those little seeds drifts off and starts to grow in a place we just can't abide, let's promise one another, as neighbors, that we'll fight it with something just as natural as the plant itself. I hear boiling water works every time.