This blog is intended to be a record of my interactions with and learning about other species that share my property, Halcyon, with me. I thought I’d start with an ubiquitous herbaceous species that we are all familiar with, Taraxicum sp., or the lowly dandelion. The seed heads thrill children, but the whole plant is the bane of many a landowner seeking a weed-free lawn. At least it was the bane of my father. To his credit though, he did not spray his lawn to rid him of this prolific weed (though this was probably because he didn’t want to spend the money on pesticides). Instead he employed my sister and me to spend embarrassing summer mornings on our hands and knees digging the plants out by the roots. We worked quickly hoping the neighbor children were not up yet to notice, and keeping our backsides toward our own house, just in case. I used to imagine Maria across the street peering out the window and laughing while she enjoyed Sunday morning cartoons and air-conditioning. I do not recall my father ever helping us with this task. It was just part of our rent I guess. I wonder if he knew that he could have benefited in other ways from our weeding efforts – a source of vitamin rich greens – that were instead thrown in the trash. No, we didn’t compost either. This was suburbia in the 70s.
I recall being told a story about dandelions and Central Park in New York City. In the 1800s Italian families would picnic in Central Park and while doing so made a habit of picking dandelions as a food source. It was a popular ingredient in their salads. In a discriminatory attempt to rid the park of these immigrants, a law was created that banned picnics and any other such enjoyment of the green space. In essence, “Keep off the grass”. Very soon the city had a problem with dandelion weeds and resorted to spraying to keep them at bay. It seems to me much cheaper and safer for all invoved to have allowed the picking of free edibles.
The only reference I found to verify this story: http://www.metroactive.com/papers/sonoma/01.29.98/dining3-9804.html states that the park welcomed the foraging by Italian immigrants each spring, an activity that now would be unwise due to the use of herbicides. I don’t know which version is true; I just know that I have no problem letting the yellow blossoms populate my yard. In a ‘root for the underdog’ mentality, dandelions have enamored themselves to me, largely in response to unhappy memories of having to rid our family’s front yard of what? Pretty yellow flowers that weren’t bothering anyone.
Wikipedia states both that dandelions are native to North America and Eurasia and later that early European immigrants introduced them to North America. I also learned that their long taproot brings soil nutrients up where more shallow rooted plants can benefit from them. As a food source, all parts of the plant are edible. All of these are sufficient merits for me to leave well enough alone, which I have. We’ve never applied herbicides to rid our lawn of weeds, despite the fact that weeds outnumber grass more often than not. We’ve never deemed it necessary to pull them out to impress the neighbors, a task on our 14 acres that would be grounds for checking our sanity. But I’d never eaten them despite knowing of their culinary history.
For some reason, I just knew that it would be one of those things that did not taste all that great, but that die-hard foragers rave about. I mean, if the Italians and French have used them for hundreds of years and elite New York City restaurants tout them as haute cuisine, then surely someone I know personally must love them and rave about them. But I’ve never come across anyone who has tried them when I bring it up. I’ve never seen any dandelion greens in our weekly CSA rations, and I might actually have been secretly delighted since I quickly tire of Swiss chard. So try dandelions sat on my to-do list for several years. Coming from someone who has tried all kinds of herbs, made my own tonic syrup for gin and tonics, and ate a home-cured ham, I was uncharacteristically hesitant about trying them. This year I finally gave in.
I collected about two cups of leaves early this spring when I’ve read they are least bitter. I decided to try sautéing them in olive oil with plenty of garlic. I know this is cheating, but it just didn’t look as appealing as a gin and tonic. I was pleasantly surprised, though I would not go as far as to rave about it. I have since tried them two other times. I picked enough to add to some mixed greens and ate them raw the second time. It is definitely bitter, but not bad. I also picked and chewed up a flower head one day after reading about a woman who treats dandelion flowers like lawn candy. I liked the first bit of flavor that washed over my tongue, nutty and something else I can’t describe. But then that bitter flavor took over and I quickly spat it out. My lawn candy will be mainly for my eyes. I will though, try dandelion greens again this fall. I’ve read that after a frost some bitterness is removed. I will think about immigrants collecting some nutritious greens – theirs to recharge after a long winter – mine to prepare for shorter days. And I’ve added try dandelion wine to my new ‘learning about my land’ to-do list.