News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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June 8, 2014

MIKE LUNSFORD: It’s the true ‘face of spring’

‘Suns to moons,’ dandelions an ancient first-aid kit

I’d be a liar if I said that I miss the yellow carpet of dandelions that dotted my front yard just a few weeks ago. As is the case every spring, I patiently mowed and snipped and clipped them — even dug more than a few out of my flower beds — then waited for their blooms to change to puffy white seed heads, which signal the end of their glory for another year.

I have never sprayed my lawn with herbicides to kill dandelions because I’ve always tried to avoid using much of anything that depicts a skull and crossbones on its label, and because I rarely see honeybees anymore, a bad omen, I fear, of things yet to come for us.

No, I won’t say I’m upset that the dandelions have, for most part, taken their leave; I like a nice uniform, green lawn as much as anyone. However, that doesn’t mean I haven’t come to respect this tiny flower, and those disappearing bees, both of which possess a lot more power than most of us probably know.

Like most children, I once thought dandelions were about as pretty a flower as there could be, but also like most, I was raised to consider it a weed, something of a nuisance that was to be pulled or sprayed, a temporary plaything that came each spring, but was gone by the time the summer heat had really set in.

I knew even then, when dandelions “…had changed from suns to moons,” as the writer, Nabokov, once said, that my interests would move to other things, like the smell of sassafras, or the cool mud of the creek between my toes, or the taste of ripening pears on my grandmother’s big, old backyard tree.

My interest in dandelions has, however, been rekindled after I spoke with Anita Sanchez, an author, educator and blogger from New York, who has spent a lifetime exploring the “unmowed corners of the world.”

If you want to know anything at all about dandelions, then reading her “The Teeth of the Lion: The Story of the Beloved and Despised Dandelion” (McDonald and Woodward Publishing, 2006) is the place to begin.

“The thing that struck me about dandelions is how human attitudes towards them have changed over millennia,” Sanchez told me. “They’re one of the most ancient plants used by humans. Ancient Greeks and Romans, and humans for many centuries before them, used dandelions — leaf, root and flower — to treat a host of ailments. They seem always to have been a sort of green first aid kit. The roots stimulate liver function and help filter toxins from the body — a crucial function these days when we’re besieged by toxins in our water, air and food.”

I have known for years that dandelions were used by herbalists, like Doc Wheat, the eccentric local Parke County, Cincinnati-trained eclectic, who put cowslip and black cohosh and lobelia and a host of other local plants, like dandelions, to work in his elixirs and tonics. I knew that folks resorted to eating dandelions — violets and other yard “weeds,” too — during the Great Depression when food supplies dwindled to nothing. But never in my wildest dreams did I know that dandelions are actually about as nutritious as any plant we have available to us, and that at one time they were cultivated.

“Dandelions were one of the first European plants imported to America, probably on the Mayflower. They were planted as crops, sold wholesale as medicine, judged at county fairs and planted in gardens for their cheerful yellow beauty,” Sanchez says. “Gardeners used to weed out the grass to make room for the dandelions. It wasn’t until the 20th century, when Americans began to seek a pure, uninterrupted stretch of green lawn, that dandelions became ‘Public Enemy No. 1,’” she added.

She’s not exaggerating. About 30 million acres of this country are devoted to our lawns (I feel I sometimes mow about half of them myself), and 80 million pounds of chemicals, costing about $40 billion, are dumped onto those yards each year, mostly in an attempt to control the lowly dandelion. Obviously, the investment is a temporary fix.

Sanchez writes in her book: “We rarely notice dandelions these days, except when we try to kill them. … But still they follow us, down the centuries; they stick to us as closely as a dog, as inevitable as a shadow. We may try to outrun them, but we never will; they are our footprints.

“The thing that actually got me to sit down and write a book on dandelions was the appalling statistic, that, according to the Audubon Society, more than seven million wild birds die annually because of the aesthetic use of pesticides. Aesthetic use — not growing crops to feed hungry people — poisons we use to make our lawns and gardens look nice. Every spring you see those little yellow markers warning people to stay off the lawn for 24 hours. … But who can’t read those markers? Birds, butterflies, cats and dogs, barefoot toddlers — the potential effect of pesticides on the developing nervous systems and organs of children is frightening,” Sanchez says.

Being a bacon-and-eggs man probably doesn’t make me want to run out for a dandelion salad anytime soon, or take dandelion-enhanced supplements, but apparently they’d both do me some good. Sanchez tells me that weeding gardeners probably pull the most nutritious plant out of their soil when they remove their dandelions.

A “vitamin powerhouse,” a hundred grams of raw dandelion greens have 14,000 international units of Vitamin A and 35 milligrams of Vitamin C. That’s seven times more of the former (pound for pound) than oranges, and more of the latter than tomatoes.

Years ago, I read Ray Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine,” a magical semi-autobiographical novel that captures the love the author had for his hometown of Waukegan, Illinois — the love he had for his own childhood, really.

Setting his story in the summer of 1928, Bradbury wrote, “Lilacs on a bush are better than orchids. And dandelions and devil grass are better! Why? Because they bend you over and turn you away from all the people in the town for a little while and sweat you and get you down where you remember you got a nose again.”

He also tells us: “Bees do have a smell, you know, and if they don’t, they should, for their feet are dusted with spices from a million flowers.”

Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at hickory913@aol.com, or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Go to his website at www.mikelunsford.com to learn more about his books. Learn more about Anita Sanchez and dandelions at www.anitasanchez.com.

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