Their English name comes from Middle French dent de lion–lion’s tooth–because the ends of their petals look like they have been nibbled by a vegetarian lion. But in contemporary French it’s pissenlit, or “pee-in-the-bed,” for the plant’s diuretic properties.
Dandelions are much maligned by the kind of gardener who glories in a velvet-smooth, Astroturf-like lawn such as is not found in Nature. The most rabid attack the hapless plant with herbicides, while the more ecological use a weeding fork as their weapon of choice. But both are united in their war against the little plant.
Yet what’s not to like about a dandelion? It’s one of the few plants that are edible from head to foot. You can make dandelion wine out of the blossoms. The process is labor intensive, as you need to collect two quarts of the tiny yellow petals (any green bits will make the wine bitter) to make less than a gallon of wine, but the result is a light, refreshing, definitely alcoholic beverage–almost as pleasant as the couple of hours you spent in the chilly spring sun gathering the blossoms and listening to the bluebird call to his wife from the roof top.
The very young leaves, the first edible fresh greens of the season, can go into a salad, providing your body with many of the vitamins and minerals that it’s been pining for all winter. And the dried and powdered roots make a chicory-like beverage that, while not as tasty as shade-grown Arabica coffee, can be a consolation to those who, like me, have been obliged to give up caffeine.
But the main reason to treasure and protect (I was going to say propagate, but that might be going too far) the dandelion is that, as the first plant to bloom in the spring, it offers sustenance to hungry honey bees in their forays out of the hive where they have been hibernating. You don’t have to like honey or the glow of beeswax candles to want to do all you can to help the bees. You just have to like to eat, since, according to the USDA, about 35% of the world’s food plants depend on pollination by bees, butterflies, birds, and bats to reproduce. Besides, who can resist the sight of a worker bee crawling eagerly over that little yellow dome, sucking up nectar with her tiny proboscis, her brown stripes disappearing under a dusting of golden pollen?
If, despite everything, the sight of dandelions in your grass is bad for your mental health, try to tolerate them at least during April and May. After that there will be other sources of nectar and pollen for the bees, and you can mow with a relatively clear conscience.
If the bees don’t inspire you to be kind to the dandelion, sheer aesthetics ought to. Clear your mind of any Roundup-induced prejudices and tell me honestly, what is more yellow than a dandelion? What is more cheering to eyes that have languished on a diet of white, gray, and brown all winter than the sudden sight of a million little suns blazing in a field of bright new grass–a field further decorated, here in Vermont, with a herd of grazing cows?
I have no doubt that the dislike of dandelions is, like the hatred of squirrels, culturally acquired, and that an unindoctrinated observer–an extraterrestrial, say, or a human toddler–would not fail to appreciate their charm. Here is proof: my three-year-old daughter was fond of plucking any bloom she came across and offering me “bouquets” of stemless flower heads as an expression of her love. I had been trying to teach her to leave flowers unpicked so they would last longer and others could enjoy them when, one spring morning, she pulled me to the window. Overnight, the dandelions had exploded, and our yard was a sea of yellow. “Mommy,” she gasped, pointing to the dandelions, “look how pretty! Is it all right if I pick just one?”