Look! There’s a yellow flower growing in that jagged sidewalk crack, but watch out! You almost stepped on the crack and everyone knows that would break your mother’s back. Is it a weed or is it a flower? I guess that depends on who you ask, but rub it on your chin and see if it makes your skin turn yellow. Ha! Did you know that means you like butter? Look over there in the school yard. There’s an entire meadow of them. Should we weave them into fairy crowns or fry them into fritters? Maybe we should leave a few for the bumblebees and come back to blow wishes next week. Can you think of anything more hopeful than a dandelion in May?
Every year, Americans spend $30-40 billion on lawn care. The money buys seed and sod, gas to power mowers, and chemical concoctions to make the grass grow green and tall. According to a widely cited statistic from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, nearly 70 million pounds of pesticides (including herbicides) are applied to US lawns each year. This is approximately ten times the amount applied to American farmland, acre for acre. In some locations, a counter-cultural wave with words like organic, ecoscaping, natural, native, xeriscaping, low-impact, and sustainable has begun to gain hold. Nonetheless, for many people, a lush, green lawn of nothing but turf grass remains the ultimate goal.
And yet, one woman’s weed is another woman’s salad.
There is probably no flower more beloved or detested than the cheerful dandelion. It grows with persistence in the most unwelcoming locations – gravely sand, cracks in the pavement, and well-loved lawns. I once had a man complain to me, without a trace of irony, that his wealthy suburban neighborhood had become a ghetto because the neighbors on the corner had let their yard fill in with dandelions. Children love them. Homeowners hate them, and no matter how hard we try to make them disappear, the dandelions carry on with dogged determination.
Most species of dandelions originated in Europe and Asia, and in fact, Puritans brought these flowers to North America intentionally when they came here in search of a better life. For centuries, dandelions have been used for medicine, food, and wine. Unlike most plants, humans can eat every part of the plant – roots, stems, flowers and even seeds. They are rich in Vitamins C, E and A, as well as calcium, potassium, zinc and iron. Dandelions have been used to make dye and are said to provide treatment for a wide variety of health conditions. Though they drive many homeowners crazy, dandelions actually pose little to no threat ecologically.
Ironically, many of the weeds and invasive species that plague our yards and natural landscapes can actually be eaten. Stinging nettles can be boiled and turned to soup. Cattail shoots can be plucked and sliced on salads. Garlic mustard makes an excellent pesto. A short list of other unlovable plants that arguable taste great, includes lamb’s quarters, burdock roots, bull thistle, and goat’s beard.
If you’re interested in learning more about wild edible plants, join me next Tuesday, May 5, 12:30-1:15pm for a short lunchtime webinar. I’ll share Washington Conservation District staff recommendations for plants that are easy to find and prepare and will also provide guidance on harvesting wild edibles safely and without impacting the environment. Register online.
Whether you’re a budding survivalist or just looking for a fun activity to do with your kids, learning about wild edibles can provide new appreciation for the flowers, plants and trees in our everyday landscapes. In the end, you might still decide that dandelions have no place in your lawn. Then again, if you’re armed with a recipe, you’ll have a creative new way to dispose of these plants when you drive them from your yard.