Saturday, April 25, 2015

My future as a Wyoming dandelion wrangler

The last Saturday in April. Windows thrown open. Breeze riffling curtains.

I hear a lawnmower.

This is transition season between the sounds of snowblowers and those of lawnmowers. There's no clear-cut demarcation line in Wyoming. On April 17, the snowblowers were out, shooting a foot of heavy wet snow into The Big Sky. On April 25, it's lawnmower time, at least for one neighbor. I took a gander at my backyard and it could use a trim. It's unruly. Nice crop of dandelions add a yellow splash to the yard. The common dandelion, taraxacum officinale. As is true with most owners of lawns, I shout out, "Death to all dandelions."

Foolish homo sapiens. Dandelions preceded us and will no doubt outlive us. While clever humans have one way to propagate, dandelions have many. On the About Home web site, writer David Beaulieu opens his article on "how to control dandelions" with this caveat:

What makes dandelion removal from lawns so difficult? Well, dandelions enjoy the best of both worlds. Above-ground, their seeds ride the wind currents, poised to drop into the slightest opening in your lawn to propagate the species. Meanwhile, below-ground, they strike down a taproot up to 10 inches long. Pulling the taproot as a means of removal is problematic. Thick but brittle, the taproot easily fractures -- and any fraction of the taproot that remains in the ground will regenerate.

Before you get out the weed killer, you might want to contemplate some of the culinary and medicinal benefits of dandelions. From Wikipedia:

Dandelions are harvested from the wild or grown on a small scale as a leaf vegetable. The leaves (called dandelion greens) can be eaten cooked or raw. They are probably closest in character to mustard greens. Usually the young leaves and unopened buds are eaten raw in salads, while older leaves are cooked. The leaves are high in vitamin A, vitamin C and iron, carrying more iron and calcium than spinach. 

Dandelion flowers can be used to make dandelion wine, for which there are many recipes. Most of these are more accurately described as "dandelion-flavored wine," as some other sort of fermented juice or extract serves as the main ingredient. It has also been used in a saison ale called Pissenlit (the French word for dandelion, literally meaning "wet the bed") made by Brasserie Fantôme in Belgium. Dandelion and burdock is a soft drink that has long been popular in the United Kingdom. 

In Poland, dandelion flowers are used to make a honey substitute syrup with added lemon (so-called May-honey). This "honey" is believed to have a medicinal value, in particular against liver problems. Ground roasted dandelion root can be used as a non-caffeinated coffee substitute. 

Historically, dandelion was prized for a variety of medicinal properties, and it contains a wide number of pharmacologically active compounds. Dandelion is used as a herbal remedy in Europe, North America and China. "Empiric traditional application in humans of dandelion, in particular to treat digestive disorders, is supported by pharmacological investigations. It has been used in herbal medicine to treat infections, bile and liver problems, and as a diuretic. Dandelion root is a registered drug in Canada, sold principally as a diuretic. Dandelion is used in herbal medicine as a mild laxative, for increasing appetite, and for improving digestion. 

The milky latex has been used as a mosquito repellent and as a folk remedy to treat warts. A recent experiment shows that đandelion leaf extract can reduce the spread of tumor cells. Although these researches are still on beginning stages, but many scientists believe that it can be used as an effective treatment in many types of cancer. With very low or even no toxicity at all, taraxacum can be used as a drink like tea on a daily basis. 

Contrast this with the many uses of the ornamental lawn. This is my own list, compiled with the assistance of a growler of home-brewed Pissenlit:

1. Pretty to look at it.
2. Playing field for softball, croquet, volleyball, etc.
3. Good place to lie down on a summer day and stare up at the clouds.
4. Cool grass feels good between the toes.
5. Bathroom for dog.

The most dangerous trait of dandelions may be the fights they cause with neighbors. If I decide to do nothing about my crop of taraxacum officinale, you may view this as a threat to your bluegrass lawn. You would be correct, of course, and you might ask your neighbor: "What are you doing with a bluegrass lawn in the middle of the high desert of Wyoming?"

But you, of course, also have one of these lawns. I've been tempted to kill off my lawn since I inherited it when I bought my house in 2005. But if you kill off a lawn, what do you replace it with? Xeriscaping? Rock gardens? Pavement? Weeds? Vast vegetable gardens? Overflow parking lot for Cheyenne Frontier Days?

Current trends favor veggie or rock gardens over lawns. Entire urban neighborhoods from Boston to L.A. have been converted to tomatoes and cucumbers. In Denver, where I once protected my garden from invading slugs with a minefield of Miller Lite, front yards have been given over to berry thickets and twisted clumps of zucchini plants. My old Platt Park neighbors have opened farm-to-table stands on their front porches. Chickens lay eggs in the garage and Bessie the cow yields gallons of raw milk which is shipped to Wyoming along with fresh buds of Boulder's Best. All that's needed is a couple dozen cookies. Homemade, of course.

Dandelion cookies anyone?

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