Dandelions

Once upon a time, I scribbled out a somewhat cheeky poem about my favorite flower, the dandelion. I wrote it to fellow lovers of the flower, as an in-joke, so it is only identified by a couple of hints in the poem.

Suburban Sunshine

Across the lawn, a man of gold did flow
His grace spoke soft, his strength gave truth
He sang his hope, his pride of glories grown.
But lo, behold, the putrid waves of smoke
Tendrils of bitter lion’s teeth entwined
He fell to monsters beneath soft blue grass
His cries lost to the raw eldritch madness
Into the soft embrace of well-fed soil.

Yeah, it’s not perfect. A couple of lines shake up the rhythm some, I know. Poetry is a skill I need to refine, but today it’s about the flower more than the poem and I’m too stressed and lazy to fix it.

The reference to bitter lion’s teeth is pointing to the dandelion’s common name of “Lion’s Tooth”, a translation from the French-based name “dente-de-lion”. They edible, but can be bitter. Especially older plants growing in full sun, with relatively dry soil. Young and partially shaded plants are quite tasty, I think, as long as the older and more raggedy leaves are trimmed away. The roots are the most bitter, sometimes used as a decaffeinated coffee substitute.

The conclusion of “well-fed soil” is for those in the know of the dandelion’s role in soil repair. The rain washes nutrients deep into the soil. The dandelion’s taproot reaches further in the soil than plants around it, allowing it to thrive by out-competing neighbors.
Then the dandelion dies, and decays, the leaves releasing nutrients back into the top of the soil, along with fresh organic matter and a decaying roots that help aerate and lighten the soil. Sugars and nutrients released by decay allow microbes to thrive. They bond together and to the soil by excreting a glue-like substance. It is this substance that allows healthy soil to clump, a quality gardeners look for when judging soil conditions.

This glue holds the microbes in place, preventing them from washing down in the rain. Their life cycle as they feed on the nutrients the dandelion brought up prevents those nutrients from from washing down after rainfall as well. Other life starts to thrive, starting with those who feed on microbes and moving up to the things that feed on the things that feed on things. So scientificy. So complex.

That little microbe based food-web tunnels through the soil, the glue holds the soil in place. Tunnels stay intact, and the soil becomes more aerated. Easier for water and plant roots to move through. Their lifecycle creates some of the organic material plants need, and the now more nourished plants are more capable of fighting disease and pests.

Things start thriving. The thriving plants grow quickly and overshadow the dandelions, balance is restored. The dandelions die off, their deep roots no longer giving them an evolutionary edge. And you have your boring monoculture lawn of useless grass restored. It takes all kinds, I guess. I suppose bare feet approve.

Burn off these microbes again with heavy chemical use, this all falls apart. The dandelions do not go away. In other words, it is heavy use of fertilizer that leads to dandelion growth in the first place. Mr. Sunshine the suburbanite was organizing his own downfall.

It turns out, the best way to deal with dandelions, and other “pioneer plants” that invade soil with poor conditions is to leave them alone and let them do what they need to do. Use fertilizers 5/5/5 or lower (organics that encourage microbial growth), throw down some compost, and start making friends with your yard’s natural rhythm.

Learn about what the plants are telling you about your soil and how to repair it. Pioneer plants out compete more delicate plants simply by thriving in poor conditions, too many of one kind may be telling you your soil is too acidic, too compact, too dry or wet. Whatever it is your lawn has been trying to scream at you for years.

Often, attempts to eradicate whatever weed plagues you only helps it spread, as soil conditions worsen and grow closer to its niche. The “weed” (a four letter word) thrives until it adds enough organic matter and specific nutrients to repair the microbial imbalance, then the soil becomes nutritious enough that the more delicate plants move in and take over.

All this aside, letting the dandelions and other weeds exist in your lawn means you have a variety of emergency foods and medicines at your disposal, in case something unexpected like a stock market crash or a pandemic comes along. Personally, even when I don’t need it, I love when I identify something useful in my lawn or within walking distance (and away from street pollution). I get a little thrill every time.

Keeping our focus on dandelions, they super high in vitamins A and K, and they have some calcium. This is off the top of my head, but in looking for a link, this information looks pretty cool if you need more information than “super good for you”, and with added science.

They are a diuretic, so beneficial to the kidneys. Unlike many diuretics, they have potassium to replace what your body will shed with all that extra urine. They also stimulate bile production and overall liver health, and all of this by providing the nutrition your body needs for these functions.

There’s a reason it’s been used in herbal restoratives and tonics for centuries, a reason colonists brought seeds with them to help ensure their survival in an unfamiliar land. Consider the journey, often standing room only, everything you carry takes up valuable space. Colonists may have brought an invasive species, but they did so because they considered it critical to keep with them. Those who ate dandelion fared better in general.

Dandelion wine is one of the original wines that brought about the idea that such spirits could be medicinal, preserving the restorative power of spring. Part of the reason some pagan traditions have people consuming this wine at Yule is for the boost, physically and emotionally, that can help you get through the long nights of winter.

I’m telling you this now because of the way I seem to be reacting to a pandemic. I’ve made a couple of jokes on Twitter about everyone playing Animal Crossing, while I’ve decided to experiment with “snake oil beer” brewed from medicinal weeds I foraged.

I also started playing survival games, soon dominated by Fallout Shelter. Next thing I know, I want to start making my own tools and weapons from materials I find, as a creative outlet. We all deal in our own ways.

My point is that somewhere in there, I decided I needed to journal my knowledge of local edible weeds, and I also needed to research their medicinal uses. If I did something elaborate and artistic, something my kids could see and think, “Cool! Mom made this”, then perhaps I could get them interested in remembering the information. I could help prepare my kids in the face of potential disaster, personal or pandemic.

After all, my life hasn’t exactly featured stable incomes and housing, there has been more than one time in my life that I have supplemented the food on our table with foraging. Now I’m finding herbs that are good for boosting the immune system and treating lung conditions right in our back yard.

I turned to herbalism and foraging medicine when I started showing symptoms of illness, when there were too few test kits and too many people going into the hospital and not coming back out. A couple of weeks later, I have a light cough but I’m still standing. Maybe it was the flu. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe I improved due to the many cloves of garlic I chewed, or my beer brewed from honey, ginger, lemon, cleavers, and dandelion. Maybe not. If I did though, that’s a skill I’d like to pass on to my children. Even if I didn’t, it could still help them some time when life throws them for a loop.

Knowing how to do this is something that I should outline in a way that they will cherish the information, protect it, hopefully across more than one generation. Something in my handwriting, or something that I worked hard on for years. Posters, bullet journals, maybe a book. Hopefully only a curiosity of great-great grandmother’s reaction to a pandemic, and perhaps a window into her overall paranoia and anxiety, but possibly something that they will hang on to and have if things ever turn suddenly way too surreal. So there’s my reason for adding to the variety of the information already at hand.

They should know how to grow food and medicine, in a way that can be free or nearly so, and how to make it palatable. They should know how to use what they can find around themselves, because even if we don’t end up struggling through a worldwide economic depression following this plague, they might find themselves in a situation where the knowledge could help them out a little, and maybe learn to respect nature a little more in the process.

Anyway, I finally found reason to fulfill a lifelong, albeit relatively minor, dream of planting dandelion seeds in my garden to begin cultivating my own strain of domestic dandelions. My neighbor, who kills sparrows because they are invasive and likes to lay down on his lawn and prune it with scissors, will be thrilled to watch me lovingly tend a patch of dandelion-infested lawn. Don’t worry, other useful weeds are being tended to as well.

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