Lessons from the Dandelion

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALast week the guest on a local call-in radio show was a gardening expert talking about various plants and flowers and how to care for them. At one point, the host asked how to get rid of dandelions, and immediately the guest responded, “Why would you want to get rid of dandelions? They’re beautiful and useful!” Their exchange reminded me of something I wrote a long time ago when my kids were little, called “Look, Mommy, They’re Growing Dandelions!” Here’s an edited excerpt from that 1981-ish article, in honor of all the dandelions out there at this time of year and the lessons they teach us.

“With the arrival of each spring the landscape is blessed with yet another bumper crop of dandelions. Ever since our eight-year-old daughter was a toddler, my adult perception of dandelions has changed to include both a child’s eye view and a growing realization that our attitude toward dandelions has a lot to do with what we consider important in life. To a child, a dandelion is a treasure. When our three-year-old son exclaims, “Look, Mommy, they’re growing dandelions in their yard!” it is an expression of pure joy mixed with disappointment that our small yard doesn’t allow us to grow many. Somewhere along the line, we lose the childish innocence that permits us to view things on their own merit.

Why is it that we adults have decided, perhaps arbitrarily, that dandelions are a curse, that we are socially bound to ferret out each dandelion infesting our yards? Why can’t we instead view the dandelion as a child does? Perhaps if we did that, our perspective on other things would change too. Think about these four praiseworthy attributes of dandelions.

1. Dandelions are beautiful. What parent hasn’t received a bouquet of wilted dandelions, lovingly picked and lovingly given by a child with a pollen-smudged face? From the time they were big enough to pick flowers, our children have been instructed that the only ones they may pick without asking are dandelions. I’ve been the recipient of many dandelion offerings, and as result have had many occasions to examine the flowers. They really are very pretty – a brilliant fragrant yellow, symmetrically formed, ranging in size from small and delicate to large and robust. A green lawn studded with dandelion sunbursts is a beautiful reminder of the return of spring.

2. Dandelions are fun. The brilliant yellow beauty lasts only a few days before it is replaced by a white ball of seeds just waiting to be dispersed to the far corners of the neighbors’ immaculate lawns. When I was young, we played a game with dandelion puff balls. We tried to blow off all the seeds in one breath; whatever seeds remained we counted to predict the number of children we would have. I’ve always felt fortunate that those predictions were meaningless because otherwise our house would have been overrun with children. Some seed balls were stubbornly resistant to my most powerful breaths.

3. Dandelions are nutritious. Young dandelion greens can be cooked in much the same way as spinach, Swiss chard, endive and other greens. They can also be used alone or with other greens in salads. The important thing is to pick the leaves when they first come up in the spring – before the blossoms appear. Then, when the flowers come, they too can be picked, dipped in a light batter, and fried in hot oil. [Recipes]

4. Dandelions teach us about nonconformity and environmental issues. Our attitude toward dandelions may say something about how willing we are to resist conformity to what middle-class American society has decided is proper. Think of all the time and energy that could be saved if we gave up the funny notion that dandelions are pollutants. The weed-killers used to destroy them and the fertilizers used to produce perfect lawns are expensive and not always a positive addition to the earth, its atmosphere and our bodies.”

Fast forward to 2013: To be honest, I haven’t ever actually picked and cooked dandelion greens myself, but my husband says he used to enjoy how his mother cooked them. Also, we now live in suburbia where we have a large lawn (compared to the tiny postage-stamp-sized yard we had in the city) and are conscious of the so-called weeds in our lawn compared to our neighbors. We feel some obligation to the neighborhood not to let our lawn totally disintegrate into a complete mass of weeds, which around here include dandelions! Further, as I read what I wrote more than 30 years ago, I sense a bit of youthful idealism and self-righteousness in myself. Yikes!

On the other hand, last week when I heard the garden expert echoing something I was saying all those years ago, it was a good reminder that there are more important things in life than ridding one’s lawn of dandelions. And it reminded me of another lesson I learned just a few years ago that also involved dandelions. During a particularly difficult time in my life, I saw the short film, “Celebrating What’s Right With the World,” by Dewitt Jones, a photographer for National Geographic. Jones tells how one time he came upon a field of dandelions and thought he would come back later to film the blaze of yellow flowers. By the time he returned to the field, however, the dandelions had morphed into white puff balls, and his instinctive response was to mourn the loss of the photographs he wanted to take. But then he looked more closely, and recognized the beauty of the puff balls. The end result is a stunning photograph of a dandelion puff ball.

Jones uses the incident to encourage people to “celebrate what’s right with the world” (the beauty of the puff ball) rather than focus on what’s wrong (the loss of the flowers). He says, “Celebrating what’s right with the world enables us to recognize the options and opportunities before us, while helping us unleash our energy and creativity…. Celebrating what’s right also allows us to harness the energy we need to fix what’s wrong with the world—or at least our corners of it. [It] does not mean pretending there aren’t things that are wrong. Without a doubt, many situations desperately need improvement. However, we are more prepared to tackle these tasks when we can also keep in mind the many things that are right with the world. When we recognize the good, we’re implicitly acknowledging that solutions exist for many of the challenges before us.”

I needed that lesson at that point in my life, and I’ve needed it many times since. Celebrating what’s right rather than focusing on what’s wrong – being strengths-based rather than deficit-based – is a constant challenge, especially when it seems like there are so many things wrong in the world. Since I often have to deliberately make myself think positively about a variety of situations, it was good to be reminded of the lessons of the dandelion!

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2 thoughts on “Lessons from the Dandelion

  1. We are gripped with a suburban mentality of uniformity, aren’t we? The best I can think of to do is–1) go green, i.e. no chemicals on lawn, so we have a green yard service; 2) minimize the amount of lawn and maximize flower space; 3) plant more trees in our yards, including fruit trees.
    On the lawn uniformity–several years ago, someone wrote a book on LAWNS which went into the history of how the U.S. got so lawn crazy. Used to be the province of the wealthy. Farm folk thought lawns a waste unless sheep could graze on them. Maybe that’s a 4 to the list above–buy sheep.
    I remember my Climenhaga grandmother gathering and preparing dandelion greens. Some people prepare it as you would lettuce with a hot bacon dressing.
    Oh, you really fast-forwarded…to 2103. Don’t think we’ll actually be here then.

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