Dandelions

  Dandelions

Article in the Summer 1994 issue of SageWoman

DANDELION MUSIC by Elizabeth Barrette

Early morning sunlight warms the air as you walk slowly along, relishing the feel of wind on your skin after the long winter, the twitter of birdsong, and the sweet scent of apple blossoms. You smile, murmuring a litany or your favorite Maiden Goddesses. New grass cushions your step, pleasantly springy underfoot. You turn slightly to catch a rising breeze and...

Oh, no. What's that? A dandelion. A great big ugly dandelion, its brazen yellow blossom mocking you from the middle of your gorgeous green lawn. You groan, dreading the start of your annual attack. The first dandelion leers up at you as you prepare to open season. Grumbling under your breath, you reach for your trusty dandelion digger...

Stop. Reconsider. Have you ever paused to think about precisely why you attempt, always unsuccessfully, to eradicate your dandelion population? Are dandelions violently poisonous? No: parts of them are edible, in fact. Are they prickly like thistles or dangerous like poison ivy? Of course not. Are they even unsightly? Not really, unless you just happen to hate flowers.

All too often, people simply take for granted that dandelions are a nuisance, without ever bothering to think about it. We assume that since everyone knows how noisome dandelions are, it must be true. Yet dandelions are one of the most amazing plants in the world, and they have a lot to teach us.

First, let's take a close look at that dandelion you were about to rip out by the roots. Ah, yes, the roots; we all know about those! Each taproot sinks a foot or more into the soil, allowing the plant to survive if the leafy crown is pulled away. The narrow, deeply serrated leaves give the plant its most common name. "Dandelion" comes from the French "dent de lion," meaning "tooth of the lion." These dark green leaves spread out in a flat rosette, and the flower stalks rise up from the center. Tiny round buds open into beautiful buttery-yellow blossoms. Dozens of miniature petals form the powder-puff head, surmounted by the pollen-wearing stamens that adorn your skin with gold dust as you inhale the sweet fragrance. The flower opens in the morning and closes at night or if it rains. After a few days, insects have pollinated the flower, and it stays closed for about a week while a wonderful metamorphosis takes place. When the flower opens again, the familiar yellow petals are gone, replaced by a silvery orb of parachutes. Under each parachute is a developing seed. In a short time, the seeds turn dark, then float away on the wind to sprout wherever they land.

So, how did the dandelion get here? Contrary to popular belief, dandelions are not native to North America. Instead, colonists brought seeds over from Europe. Much to their delight (and their descendants' disgust), the hardy plants thrived. Dandelion greens formed an important part of the colonists' diet, providing much-needed vitamins and minerals. Later, dandelions fell out of fashion, and now they are considered worthless weeds.

The earliest written reference to the dandelion appears in the tenth- century records of Arabian physicians. By the 16th century, it was known as a valuable drug, highly praised by British apothecaries. In the 19th century, dandelion was a popular potherb in Europe and America. Today it is the best-known weed in North America.

In all this time, the dandelion has accumulated a number of names. The scientific name, Taraxacum officinale, originated either from the Persian 'tark hashgun' (wild endive) or from the Greek 'taraxos' (disorder) and 'akos' (remedy). Most botanists favor the Greek derivation. Common names include Irish daisy, puffball, priest's crown, and peasant's cloak.

Dandelions have a wide variety of applications; every part of the plant can be used for something. They appear in culinary, ritual, and cultural contexts. People are always thinking of something new to do with dandelions.

In the spring, pick young tender leaves for a green salad. Older greens make an excellent substitute for spinach, rich in vitamins A and C. Blanch the leaves to reduce their bitterness, or wait until autumn when the bitterness dissipates naturally. Very young leaves are milder and may be used fresh.

Various beverages come from dandelions as well. For instance, the flowers can be made into a light wine. The long taproots are gathered in the late fall, roasted, and ground. This yields a wonderful coffee substitute or additive, often combined with chicory. Some people add it to hot chocolate, mulled cider, or wassail recipes.

In addition to making wonderful wine, dandelion blossoms find other ways into the kitchen. Use the bright yellow petals as a natural food coloring: mince and add to butters, spreads, dips, etc. Entire flowerheads make lovely garnishes, and lend color to herb vinegars and oils. If you enjoy all-flower or wild-green salads, brighten them up with blossoms or petals.

Dandelions are also rich in symbolism. For example, their ability to thrive under the most adverse conditions can teach us persistence and survival. Danelions even burst through the cracks of city sidewalks, a bit of defiant green amidst the concrete jungle. The deep taproots remind us to ground ourselves thoroughly, making it difficult to dig us out. The ability to regenerate from our roots is a gift we have all experienced. The opening and closing of the flower, and its metamorphosis, lead us through our own changes as we first show ourselves off, then retreat, then return in a different form. The dozens of seeds released by each flowerhead represent fertility and abundance. The seeds' journey illustrates a time of letting go, of starting something new. There is a bit of dandelion magic in all of us.

Today dandelions are creeping into awareness again. Several years ago I first noticed some folk and "filk" singers wearing colorful green-on- gold dandelion stickers. Then one craftsperson began making pewter pendants and pins with the same image, which have caught on very well. Just a word on folk vs. "filk" music. Folk music covers everything from unofficial opinions on current events to ancient ballads from traditional cultures. "Filk" music is folk music with science fiction of fantasy themes. Our own wonderful pagan repertoire, including ritual as well as recreational selections, falls somewhere in between. All of these styles of songs have a special, personal quality, a sense of wonder. Various people have at times tried to stamp them out. None of these efforts have been successful; this is the kind of music that seems to spring directly from our hearts, scattered too widely and rooted too deeply to eradicate. That's why I started thinking of it as "Dandelion Music."

Traditionally, dandelions have often appeared in pagan rituals. The buttery blossoms and bright green leaves accent altars for spring and summer celebrations, especially the Vernal Equinox, Beltane, and Litha. They can be woven into garlands, wreaths, and ropes to be worn or draped across altars. Dandelion wine is a common base for the sweet woodruff May Wine, and one of the recipes I use is specifically for Litha. Towards autumn, pluck the silvery orbs to adorn your altar for Lammas, Mabon, or Samhain.

Alternatively, you could design your own rituals to celebrate dandelions, or to take advantage of their many properties. I have found a wide assortment of quick spells involving dandelions. Scott Cunningham offered the following suggestions:

* Grow dandelions at the northwest corner of your house to bring favorable winds.

* Drink tea made from the roasted roots to promote psychich flowers, or leave a steaming cup beside your bed to summon spirits.

In addition, lots of folk magic have variations on the theme of blowing on a seedball and couting the remaining plumes to determine, for example, what time it is, how long you will live, when you will marry, how many children you will have, and so on.

One of my favorite dandelion spells is a message spell. When you are separated from a friend or loved one, pick a puffball with all the seeds still attached. To each plume attach a fond thought, then turn in the direction of your friend and blow the seeds off the stem. If any remain, your friend is also thinking of you.

If you live in the city, you may rarely have the pleasure of working with fresh herbs or flowers. Dandelions can be a delightful exception. Even in the heart of a busy urban center, a few dandelions usually poke through the pavement. Parks are also a good place to look, and no one will miss a few "useless weeds." You might have a small garden, a front yard, or other patch of green to call your own. If not, simply grow your dandelions in a flowerpot or windowbox. Even the brownest thumb has a hard time killing dandelions!

Wherever you live, dandelions can become a part of your life. Look for the first sprout as a sign of spring, and the white puffballs as a herald of autumn. Learn to appreciate what they have to offer, instead of dismissing them as a nuisance just because everyone else does. Soon the sign of a jaunty yellow blossom poking through a crack in the pavement will bring a smile to your face, a welcome touch of magic peeking into the mundane.

HOW TO MAKE DANDELION WINE

16 c dandelion blossoms 1/2 t wine yeast 1/2 gallon water 2-1/2 lbs sugar Juice from 2 lemons 1 used tea bag

Instructions: For best results, pick blossoms on a sunny day, around mid-morning when the petals are fully open and the dew has dried. Select only new, healthy heads with fresh petals and no signs of insect damage. Carefully remove all green parts from the blossoms. Allow mixture to steep until completely cool. Then strain the petals off-- folded cheesecloth, the kind used in canning, works well--squeezing out as much liquid as possible. Discard the flowers.

To the remaining liquid, add the lemon juice, tea bag, yeast, and half the sugar. Let the liquid ferment at room temperature; cover with more cheesecloth and add one cup of sugar every three days until the sugar runs out. Wait two weeks. Then strain the wine into a gallon jug (ceramic works best, but glass will do) and cork with cheesecloth. After 30 days, strain again into freshly scrubbed bottles. Cork and label. The wine will be ready to serve in a week, and will keep for about a year.

Variations: Some recipes call for boiling water, others only stipulate heated water. To improve flavor, experiment with ginger, sliced lemon, orange rind, or other spices.

DANDELION RITUALS

RITUAL FOR DIGGING IN

Consider using this kind of ritual when things get a little rough. Maybe someone has been trying to push you out of your job or home. Perhaps resources have been getting scarce of late. Your efforts get trampled down or chewed up repeatedly. Try turning on some of that stubborn dandelion magic.

This spell works best in spring or summer, when there are plenty of dandelions in bloom, but you might be surprised at how late in the year you can find green dandelions. Go outside, preferably somewhere you can remain alone and undisturbed for a while. Find a dandelion, then sit down and make yourself comfortable. (If the ground is damp, you might want to bring a blanket.) Take a few minutes to relax and let go of distractions. When you are ready, mentally cast a circle around yourself; make sure it is large enough to include at least one dandelion along with you. Place both hands flat on the ground, palm down, one on either side of the dandelion. Think about your problem now. Visualize all the annoyance, complications and general hassle. Talk about them out loud if that helps; feel free to grumble and complain all you want. When you are satisfied, set all that aside for awhile. Now think about the dandelion. Consider its persistence, its strength, its adaptability. When stepped on, it flattens out low to the ground. When mowed, it grows back. When faced with a drought, it sends a taproot deep into the earth to gather moisture. Next, envision yourself as a dandelion. Feel the sun on your leaves, giving you strength. Dig your roots in and draw sustenance from the earth around you. Rest for a while, secure in the knowledge that nothing can disturb you. Finally, return to your own awareness. Consider your problem, again, and think of ways you could reduce its impact or stand fast against it. Lace your fingers together in your lap for a moment and take time to thank the dandelion for helping you. Then dismiss the circle and go home.

RITUAL FOR LETTING GO

Most of us tend to go through our lives without ever leaving behind any of the baggage we collect along the way. In fact, many of us never even sort through it. We often have a hard time letting go of anything, even things which hold us back. "There are claw marks on everything I ever let go og," as the saying goes. Ritual can help us say good-bye to habits, beliefs, and other baggage we don't need anymore. Ritual is also good for fond farewells--to a home, a job, or group you are moving away from.

This ritual works best in autumn or winter, the traditional seasons associated with release and rest. However, you could also incorporate it as a sort of "spring cleaning." Dress warmly and comfortably, taking special care not to wear anything binding or restricting. Leave your hair loose if possible. (If you like, bring something water-resistant to sit on, since the ground will probably be wet.) Go outside and find a place that feels right to you, preferably somewhere you can remain alone and undisturbed for a few minutes. Locate a mature, fully intact dandelion seedhead, and sit down. Take some time to relax, clearing your mind of all external distractions. When you are ready, think of whatever it is that you want to let go of. What are your positive memories? What are your negative memories? What will you miss? What can you bid a cheerful "good riddance?" Take as much time as you need. Next, fold both hands together and breathe into your cupped palms. (Your hands should be bare for this, so if you wear gloves, take them off briefly.) Fill your hands with all the images you have collected. Then reach forward to cup the puffball. Settle the image of what you're releasing onto the seedhead, and envision each memory attaching itself to a separate seed with its own tiny parachute. Pick the puffball, being careful not to dislodge any of the seeds. Stand up, and salute each of the directions. Say good-bye, and blow all of the seeds off the puffball, scattering them on the wind. Watch them float away. Then turn around and walk home; don't look back.

(Note: this spell can be adapted to a quickie "street spell" for getting rid of all sorts of annoyances.)

BIBLIOGRAPHY The Complete Book of Herbs, by Lesley Bremness. A Dorling Kindersley Book. Penguin Books, NY, NY, 1988. Cunningham's Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs, by Scott Cunningham. Llewllyn Publications, St. Paul, MN, 1991. Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants, by Steven Foster and James A. Duke. The Peterson Field Guide Series, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1990. Rodale's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs, edited by Claire Kowalchick and William H. Hylton. Rodale Press, Emmaus, PA, 1987. A Dictionary of Superstitions, edited by Iona Opie and Moira Tatem. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1989. A Victorian Grimoire, Patricia Telesco. Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul, MN, 1992.

Elizabeth Barrett lives in Illinois, where she is a graduate student, writer and frequent contributor to SageWoman.