A little over a year ago I wrote an ardent defense of the dandelion, Taraxacum officinalis. I accused Taraxacophobes of being prejudiced against a plant that isn’t merely harmless, but whose leaves can be made into nutrient-rich salads, its blooms into a refreshing wine, and its dried root into a coffee-like beverage that would come in handy if, say, a plague were to destroy the coffee plantations in South America. Plus, in their exuberant yellowness, dandelions are manna to the eye, which has been starved of color by winter’s muted grays and taupes. But most of all, I argued, dandelions deserve our respect and protection because they provide sustenance for bees when few other sources of pollen are available.
Last week, when the mowers arrived in my neighborhood, I railed against the decapitation of this year’s crop of dandelions, likening it to the French Revolution, or to Herod’s massacre of the Innocents. Then a friend sent me an article that shines a different light on the plant. Friends of the dandelion, you may resent me for this, but I must tell the truth.
Although dandelions masquerade as wildflowers, they are not native to North America. They arrived on the Mayflower (along with diphtheria, typhoid, and other scourges), brought by the Pilgrims for medicinal uses. Dandelion pollen, when introduced by bees into the reproductive organs of native wildflowers, inhibits seed formation. And although pollen is crucial to the proper development of bee larvae, dandelion pollen lacks certain essential amino acids, so that an exclusive diet of dandelion pollen retards development and even kills the larvae of mason bees (a type of solitary native bee), honeybees, and bumblebees.
It turns out that those poor martyred innocents may be less innocent than I believed. With their ruthless self-propagation strategies, dandelions are the plant kingdom’s equivalent of the cuckoo. But is this the final word on bees and dandelions? I have no idea, being neither a botanist nor an entomologist. I’m just a person with a patch of grass in front of my house and a beehive across the road, trying to make sense of the world.
It makes me nervous when things I thought I knew for certain turn out to be otherwise. The dandelion reversal reminds me of others that I have lived through. For example, as babies, my generation was put to sleep on our backs, but when we had children ourselves pediatricians said to put them to sleep on their stomachs. Then our grandchildren arrived, and stomach-sleeping was held to be a major cause of infant deaths. Remember the 1980s, the no-fat decade? You could have all the sugar you wanted as long as you didn’t consume any fat. I have to thank my mother for warning me against this trend, telling me stories of how sick people got during the Spanish Civil War when the olives were not harvested and they had to live without olive oil.
Now science informs me that my friend the dandelion is not to be trusted. Of course the bad effects on the development of bee larvae only happen if they are fed dandelion pollen exclusively. As with most things in life, moderation is key. Dandelions are here to stay, and as long as theirs is not the only pollen around, the bee larvae will do fine. But is this the last word on the issue? Will future research restore dandelions to their honored status and instead blame, say, trillium for the insects’ problems?
For the moment, it seems right to encourage native wildflowers. But as we wait for the milkweed, the asters, and the lupines to become established, the best thing to do, while dwelling calmly in uncertainty, is to make dandelion wine:
Collect one gallon of dandelion blossoms, being careful to pick only the yellow petals. Pour one gallon of boiling water over the flowers. Cover and leave for three days, stirring every day. Strain the liquid into a pan. Add two sliced lemons, two sliced oranges, and a little ginger root. Boil gently for half an hour. Cool and add half an ounce of yeast. Leave to ferment for three days, then bottle and cork lightly.
Drinking it feels like pouring a ray of spring sunshine down your throat.