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 halfopen, as if hoping for a half hour of sunwarmed 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 remem ber 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 dur ing 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 motherinlaw, 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 twoandahalfyearold while my fatherinlaw 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 rakelength 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 satisfac tion 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 motherinlaw 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 fash ion magazines never seemed to make them any less popular. The ubiquity of football in Pittsburgh hasn’t decreased that sport’s popu larity 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 nextdoor 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 knowledge of a number of herbicides, and I identified this one by smell as 2,4D: useful in lawns because, by lucky chemical chance, dandeli ons are susceptible to it but not grass. (Clover is also susceptible, so when 2,4D 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: 2,4D exposure results in higher odds of developing leu kemia. 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 sup plies 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 twentyfour hours’ notice before a pesticide is applied, and that day I told our neighbor the law. I’m sure he simply saved the remain ing 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 selfpollination), but they set seed as if asexual reproduction were a process they couldn’t resist doing often, like selfstimulating 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 onegallon jug, the mouth cut open wide, to collect blooms.
For the curious or enterprising, I repeat here Gibbons’s recipe:
D a n D e l i o n W i n e
Gather one gallon of dandelion flowers on a dry day. Put these in a twogallon crock and pour one gallon of boiling water over them. Cover the jar and allow the flowers to steep for three days. Strain through a jelly cloth so you can squeeze all the liquid from the flowers. Put the liquid in a kettle, add one small ginger root, the thinly pared peels and the juice of three oranges and one lemon. Stir in three pounds of sugar and boil gently for twenty minutes. Return the liquid to the crock and allow it to cool until barely lukewarm. Spread onehalf cake of yeast on a piece of toasted rye bread and float it on top. Cover the crock with a cloth and keep in a warm room for six days. Then strain off the wine into a gallon jug, corking it loosely with a wad of cotton. Keep in a dark place for three weeks, then carefully decant into a bottle and cap or cork tightly.
Collecting a full gallon of blooms took a bit longer than I ex pected, and the repeated bending over felt a bit too much like the fieldwork I was doing in grad school. I wondered whether I was sup posed to pack the blooms tightly as when measuring brown sugar, or loosely like measuring flour for a cake. In any case, I filled the jug and then took the blooms inside.
My first rude surprise was that my onegallon pot was barely enough for the onegallon job (Duh! No wonder he wrote “two gallon crock”!), and my second rude surprise was that my crock pot the largest available pot for the next step was only three quarters of a gallon. I had to give up some of the brew. One reason I haven’t repeated the process these last eight years is that I can’t bear the idea of going to all that effort for so little yield next time I’m getting fivegallon pots! I’m waiting for a pair to appear at a flea market, since I hate to invest much money on something I’ll use only for making dandelion wine.
Beyond volume issues, though, the process was sometimes sur prising but not problematic. A slice of toasted rye bread (Why rye? Why toasted?) with yeast on top, floated on the dandelionsugar orange mixture for some days. Spills were a sticky mess because of the breathtaking amount of sugar. I had a bit of trouble with the filteringintobottles stage my cloth filter kept clogging up but after that, I was left to wait impatiently to taste it. I have never had to endure such delayed gratification with a recipe.
In the end, I waited three months to open the first of the eight or so beer bottles, and I was completely happy with it. One drinking buddy, a British friend, declared that it tasted like cheap sherry and went on to explain that she and a good friend in England used to buy cheap bottles of sherry to take to parties because (1) they loved it, and (2) they knew that they would be the only ones who wanted to drink it. I’ve never been accused of possessing a welldeveloped palate, and I recognized this compliment to my brew as likely to be rare. I gave my British friend two bottles of the stuff, shared a glass with a few other friends who gave it polite tastes, and drank the rest myself. The stock barely lasted until Christmas. This disappointed me a bit because I’d read that one of the great pleasures of drinking dandelion wine was the taste of summer in late winter; instead it didn’t last to winter solstice.
Around the same time, I had an opportunity to teach weed sci ence to thirdgraders in a local elementary school. I didn’t give the students any dandelion wine, of course, but we did identify and taste a number of other schoolyard weeds. The most virulent reactions resulted from yellow rocket (Barbaria vulgaris), a mustard that, in bud, looks like the wild broccoli now sold for exorbitant prices at our local grocery. Students tried wild garlic and garlic mustard “Eeew! Yuck!” pronounced the first taster, after which ten more children lined up to try some. They ate lamb’squarters leaves with little com ment. They also tried dandelion, both raw in the schoolyard and later cooked, when the class teacher brought it in on my last day mixed in a salad with bacon bits and salad dressing. I sometimes wonder what became of these students. If they stayed in the suburbs, I would love to know what kind of lawn managers they turned out to be.
These days I do that kind of teaching about weeds more often, but with my own children. I don’t know what the influence will be I can imagine that as teenagers they might say: “Moom! Can’t you just get a lawn service like all the other kids’ folks? Our yard is so embarrassing!” More likely, though, they’ll just be embarrassed by my existence overall. My hope for them is that, in their need for an escape from me, they will find some wild places with familiar weeds for company.
Children, though, never were a hard sell on dandelions. These days, many of my conversations about weeds yes, they happen take place in local garden club meetings. I was welcomed into the Garden Club of Allegheny County after giving a talk there about the freedom lawn (Freedom from spray? Freedom for weeds? Either works). The freedom lawn is partly a great concept because it sounds so patriotic and mainstream not at all the same as “organic lawn” or “environmentally friendly lawn.” In any case, after one recent garden club talk, I was approached by a lavishly well dressed and bejeweled member who said she was thinking of canceling her lawn service, an idea I commended heartily. She next said regretfully that the problem, though, was dandelions. I tried to look sympathetic and told her that pulling them does work, if one really detests them. She responded that her yard was one acre, as if that ended the dis cussion. I did not tell her about my motherinlaw.
I recognize that pulling dandelions is a process for the truly compulsive who also love to work outside. This narrows the field of applicants considerably. I sometimes think my inlaws, with some fondness for the farms they grew up on, try to replicate those farms by creating as much work as they can on their five acres of lawn and gardens. Generally, rather than encouraging people to pull weeds from their lawns, I try to explain that an organic lawn isn’t like or ganic vegetables. Whereas you can buy an organic tomato that is easily as high in quality and standard issue as a tomato grown with pesticides, an organic lawn cannot be a solid grass, closeshaven carpet. The freedom lawn requires a different set of expectations and values to be appreciated. It will include a few dandelions (barring the influence of my motherinlaw and a dandelion prong) maybe even enough for a batch of wine once a year.
This year, when the dandelions bloomed, I realized that I can’t continue to tell people to live with them if I don’t do it myself. I’d never really wanted to pull them, but I had at first thought that perhaps if I pulled the dandelions the most obvious offenders of the standard lawn aesthetic then neighbors could see our lawn as beautiful, and later notice that it has violets, clover, yarrow, and plantain with the grass. I asked our nextdoor neighbor, whom we affectionately call Mr. G, how he felt about our dandelions, and he said, “During the Depression, we used to go out and gather them for dinner.” He seems to be in our camp on this, and his statement eased my mind about the situation a bit.
So I have begun looking a bit harder for cheap fivegallon pots for the next batch of dandelion wine. I didn’t find the pots in time this year, but maybe I’ll get lucky before next spring’s first dry day with a sward of yellow blooms. The next winter, perhaps I’ll have some elixir of spring ready in a bottle to refresh my memory of warmer days.