Wine and Dandy

Wine and Dandy . . .

A common dandelion (Taraxacum oficinale) grows in the median strip garden of Houston Street and proves the plant likes a bed of ivy as much as a lawn of grass. (photo taken 04 27 2010)

Few wildflowers are as familiar as the common dandelion (Taraxacum oficinale). Each stage of the plant’s life cycle offers an iconic visual image: the rosette patterns of toothed leaves spreading out from cracks in a sidewalk; the lush golden blooms  that can pepper the spring green sward of a backyard almost overnight; the spherical, almost alien, parachute ball of seeds suspended on a swan’s neck of stem.

The common dandelion is a tenacious perennial as well as an herbaceous plant of the genus Asteraceae.  The plant emigrated from Eurasia, is now found in every American state, along nearly every street and green space in the West Village, and is so widespread that its distribution is nearly worldwide, or cosmopolitan. While a weed in the sense that the plant grows quickly and almost anywhere, the herbaceous qualities make it too useful to either ignore or eradicate outright.

Old World gardeners in France observed a resemblance between the plant’s serrated leaves and a lion’s tooth, and from there the popular name “Dent-a-Lion” was born. Other Europeans have embraced the greens, which can be sautéed in olive oil, and they now reside beside escarole in the pantheon of traditional Italian cooking. Urban green grocers, including those found throughout the West Village, often sell new dandelions in spring when the leaves are bright and tender. Raw, the lion’s tooth sits well in a salad.  Anyone who enjoys endive and other slightly bitter lettuces will also savor dandelions. Their flavor blends particularly well with the sweet acidity of balsamic vinegar.

Dandelion blossoms have a culinary use as well. These can be fermented with other fruits into a country wine, a libation that has even inspired the title of a literary classic: Ray Bradbury’s novel Dandelion Wine. Bradbury’s literary art imitated his own reflective life story about one of his boyhood summers in the Midwest. Dandelion wine enters the story through the main character’s grandfather. His love of the dandelion, and his wine recipe, act as a metaphor, a way for the writer to channel his boyhood and place that poetic experience into a prosaic bottle.

One of my read and reread childhood books was a paperback copy of Bradbury’s novel. The front cover pictured a boy standing in an idyllic field; an image that sums up some of my own best memories of childhood. I grew up in the Fineview section of Pittsburgh, atop one of the many hills overlooking the city’s downtown – The Point – the confluence of the rivers Monongahela and Allegheny that forms the Ohio. The surrounding hilltops remain too steep to build upon, and these undeveloped tracts of hilly woods gave my generation of kids plenty of freedom and access to nature with the city skyline still visible through the trees. I can trace my birth as an urban naturalist to this time and place.

Countless hours were spent with the dandelions in my yard, or across the street in my mother’s well-weeded vegetable garden, where I would read and field study plants and animals. Often I would get more ambitious and head farther afield down onto the hilly slopes of “the hollows” where more birds, mammals, hardwood trees, and wildflowers could be viewed and studied, often in complete solitude if I wanted it. My friends who preferred baseball and kickball called me “Nature Boy” back then, but they were always interested when I returned with new specimens and sketches.

My person was always fully equipped during these excursions. I carried a junior naturalist’s tool kit that included field guides, a pair of binoculars for birds, containers for insects or other temporary collectibles, and a notebook to document the time, place, and scientific names of my sightings. My favorite item was my folding magnifying glass, which I used especially for plants. Botanical specimens fascinated me. Plants did not move, which allowed for a quiet, thorough examination that the fleeting flight of birds and butterflies could not provide. This contemplation of the form cultivated my interest in aesthetics. The colors and symmetries of natural plant forms were a seed that later grew into a parallel fascination with the visual arts and architecture. The still life, the landscape, the use of organic motifs on building facades: the phrase “It’s all there.” sums up the point, succinctly.

Now contemplate the common dandelion’s bloom under a lens: this exercise reveals the flower is a composite consisting of numerous compacted florets. These give the dandelion bloom its richness of color, largesse of pollen, and that lush quality of depth one can sink his or her nose into.

Next, after the bloom has gone to seed, contemplate the spherical head. The fluffy white ball consists of numerous seeds, each corresponding to one of the earlier golden florets. The individual seed is attached to its own parachute and, after going airborne, the chute will actually release the seed once it is bumped or comes to a landing. This organic high technology transport system is the secret to the plant’s pervasive success.

A trio of parachute balls display the common dandelion's symmetry (and geometry) on the Hudson River Park lawn. (photo taken 04 30 2010)

Tasty and attractive, the dandelion should not be viewed merely as an invasive weed that produces golden blemishes on the face of a green grass lawn. The dandelion is classified as a “companion plant” – a species that can aid in the cultivation of another. A common example of this relationship can be seen in the cultivation of clover on fallow farm fields. The clover grows quickly and through the course of an off year produces nitrogen and other nutrients that replenish soil depleted by monocrop plants like corn. The dandelion, like the clover, is a “beneficial weed” – one that is also beautiful and, thanks to a great American author, storied.

— rPs 05 07 2010

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