Cumberland Times-News

April 24, 2008

Dandelions hold promise summer will bring

Betty VanNewKirk, Columnist

When I look out my window at this time of year I see an expanse of fresh green grass studded with golden circlets like coins spilled from a careless magician's pouch.

In a few days they will be replaced by gossamer globes, fit to light the palace of a fairy queen, and then the wind will tear the globes apart, and scatter tiny seeds, each carried by its own minute parachute.

To some people what has magic for me is only a crop of dandelions, tenacious weeds with long stubborn roots and prickly leaves that interrupt the smooth carpet of lawn.

Dandelions crop up in temperate zones all across the world. The name - "Lion's tooth'' - is French, but scientists think that the plant originated in the lush Euro-Asian region that gave us apples and peaches, tulips and poppies, and that it was deliberately brought to North America by the early settlers who found it a useful source of food and medicine.

They used dandelions as a tonic, as a laxative or diuretic, and they may have applied the oily sap in dandelion stalks to chapped hands or faces before the days of Oil of Olay.

More recently, the sticky stem-sap has been turned into latex, a substitute for rubber, although it proved not to be cost-efficient. And when coffee was not available in World War II, some people roasted dandelion roots and ground them up to make a black, bitter ersatz brew.

Dandelion leaves, on the other hand, have long been used as food. The young leaves, before blossoms appear, make a tangy addition to salads, and throughout the spring season, those leaves can be served as a vegetable, like spinach or turnip greens. I like them - but I have a vivid memory of the occasion when the dandelion dish turned out to be a disaster.

I was visiting my grandparents in Canada when Uncle Wynn, their oldest son, arrived for a weekend with a "special treat'' for his parents. He had found dandelion greens at an Amish farm stand, and came with all the ingredients for a gourmet dressing for them.

Wynn was well aware that dandelion leaves, pushing their way up through the ground, become imbedded with sand. They must be washed, and rewashed, and then washed again to get all the grit out of the crinkles.

He did the washing, but instead of emptying the pan in grandpa's vegetable garden he dumped the water into the sink. Before we could sit down at the table a call had to be made to a local plumber to take out the trap and clean out the clog that had developed.

I didn't remember what kind of dressing Uncle Wynn made - perhaps oil and vinegar and hard-boiled eggs - but I do remember the reaction when he carried the dish to the table. My spinster Aunt Elsie, who still lived with her parents, took one bite of her brother's presentation and pushed her plate aside, whining, "I like dandelion greens the way Mama always fixes them!''

I have cooked the greens a few times, but the proper time for cutting them seems to happen when my back is turned, and suddenly the yard if full of flowers. I mentioned that fact once, saying that I really ought to try making dandelion wine; I had tasted it once - pale green, delicately flavored and delicious.

My comment resulted in my receiving from Mr. Upton Edwards - Remember him? - his wife's wine recipe. I never attempted to make it (think how many flower heads I would have had to pick!) but another friend expressed interest, and I shared the recipe with him.

I learned later that the wine was a disaster - and when I reread the recipe I knew why. In addition to yeast and sugar and dandelions, the recipe calls for three lemons and three oranges, but the size of the fruit is not mentioned, and there were no instructions about preparing the citrus.

Should they be sliced - cut up - ground? And after the ingredients are combined in a big earthen jug, are they refrigerated or set out in the sun for the next two weeks? I still have the recipe, but anyone interested in concocting a potable brew should find other instructions.

As I look out the window at my yard, strewn with fool's gold, I'm reminded of other experiences with dandelions, of people with whom I have shared those experiences. But it is not all a matter of looking back. The bright flowers also hold a promise of the sunshine and the bounty that summer will bring. Dandelions are not just weeds!

Betty VanNewkirk is the historian for the Frostburg Museum.