Dandelions are the stars of one of my favorite childhood photographs. My younger sisters and I sprawl in the backyard of our small tract home, nearly buried by the lush golden expanse of flowers. We are all grinning. We lived in a raw subdivision, freshly carved out of farmland, and dandelion seeds blew freely over the bulldozed landscape. We would collect the yellow blossoms for bouquets to give my mother, who would place them in old jars at the center of the kitchen table with great ceremony. Later, our yard would magically transform into a field of white puff balls waving in the wind. How many breaths did it take to blow all the seeds away? We competed until we were gasping. I would watch the seeds floating away and try to imagine where they would descend. Just thinking of dandelions conjures up a time of wonder and magic, of secret childhood places, and lying on my back in the grass looking at clouds.
I discovered other meanings of dandelions when we moved to a suburban home that was closer to the city. The men in this middle-class neighborhood were actively engaged in a war on weeds to achieve a uniform square of turfgrass and we were expected to join the fray. A dandelion-free lawn was the new standard as a sign of conformity to community values. Our ragged, weedy lawn, haphazardly mown with an old hand mower, was an eyesore and neighbors offered advice and help with lawn care. Our dandelions were a menace to the neighbors’ investments in their green carpets.
Why did dandelions become public enemy number one in suburban lawns? Lawn care became big business after World War II, spurred by a burgeoning chemical industry eager for new markets. The explosive growth of the American suburbs provided millions of new consumers for their products. Mass-produced housing on long streets emphasized uniformity and order, while zoning regulations and homeowner rules enforced class and racial segregation. Lawn maintenance sorted the bad plants from the good plants, while television commercials exhorted slothful homeowners to “weed and feed” as a patriotic duty.
Lawn care is expensive, time-consuming, and backbreaking work. Mr. Rogers, our next- door neighbor, would spend broiling summer days weeding, mowing, watering, and edging, while I lounged in a hammock, weeds sprouting around me. His disapproving looks were hard to miss.
The language deployed against dandelions and other so-called weeds is military: war, campaign, eradication, invasion, infiltration, pre-emptive strike, extermination, and control. According to the lawn care commercials, dandelions are evil invaders, sneaky infiltrators, and noxious weeds. Patriotic and stirring music often plays in the background of these commercials as the homeowner bravely strides across his lawn spreading potent neurotoxins on his grass and doing his part to fight the war. Not mentioned is the environmental havoc wreaked by the continual round of fertilizer and herbicides: the poisoning of humans and wildlife, as well as the fertilizer runoff into Lake Erie that causes toxic algae blooms.
The fervor with which herbicides, rodenticides, and pesticides are deployed begs the question, what are we so afraid of? Disorder, diversity, fecundity, chaos, messiness, and change are the very stuff of life. Is there anything more dead and sterile than a viridian green carpet, brutally mowed in perfect diagonal stripes and so drenched in chemicals that warning signs must be posted as if it’s a hazardous waste site?
The truth is that dandelions are the antithesis of a noxious destroyer. They are beneficial to the environment in a myriad of ways that turfgrass is not. Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) are part of the sunflower family and were first brought to North America by Europeans, who valued the leaves for their nutrition and the roots for medicinal uses. As part of their understanding of the rich flora that surrounded them, the Ojibwe and Mohegans used dandelion roots to brew tea for heartburn and stomach distress. Dandelion greens have a higher concentration of nutrients than spinach or broccoli, and are incredibly rich in vitamins A, B, C, D, and the minerals zinc, iron, and potassium.
As if that weren’t enough, the long tap root aerates the land, bringing nutrients from deep in the soil to the surface. They are the first hardy plants to appear in abused earth and help restore it to health. In addition to feeding the soil, the humble dandelion is a feast for birds and pollinators. Hungry bees flock to dandelions in the spring, since they are one of the first sources of pollen in April and May, and the little sunny flowers may be an important key to maintaining wild bee populations. The American goldfinch, the northern bobwhite, the wild turkey, and white-throated sparrow snack on the seeds, while the hummingbird uses the soft down for its miniature nests.
As part of the growing environmental consciousness that is pushing back on the misuse and destruction of our habitat, dandelion supporters are popping up like dandelions in the spring. An annual dandelion festival takes place in Dover, Ohio every May, and cookbooks featuring recipes such as Slovenian creamed dandelions and dandelion meringue pie are available. Dandelion pancakes anyone? A Cleveland botanist, Peter Gail, crowned himself “The King of Dandelions” and founded a fan club called “The Defenders of Dandelions.” Organic gardeners, ecologists, scientists, and botanists are pushing back on the self-serving claims of the lawn care giants.
I think of my yard, that bit of landscape of which I am a temporary caretaker, as a sacred trust. It is a biologically diverse and rich environment, a habitat for hawks, owls, mice, chipmunks, moles, skunks, butterflies, mourning doves, blue jays, cardinals, robins, goldfinches, hummingbirds, deer, insects, worms, arachnids, beetles, ants, and centipedes, just to name some of the species I have observed and delighted in. Dandelions, echinacea, nepeta, black-eyed Susans, goldenrod, butterfly weed, and Joe Pye weed have found places to grow and thrive. I feel honored they want to live near me. A vote of confidence that I won’t poison them or define them as pests or weeds, but as part of the vast web of life that sustains me.
I feel deep pleasure watching a spider weave a web on my deck in the summer dusk or seeing the bats wheeling in the sky in their nightly hunt for mosquitoes. In the winter, a red-tailed hawk might keep vigil in the top branches of the London planetree, watching for rabbits and voles on the snow. The backyard is where we have our meet and greets, and I get to know my non-human neighbors. I love the idea of a yard as a habitat, an ecosystem, rather than a demonstration of conformity to social values dictated by lawn care companies.
Can we learn to see differently? To love dandelions or spiders or moths is to understand our own life cycle: birth, growth, death, and decay. We can learn to accept that we are neither separate, nor special as a species.
As I walk around Cleveland, I see more weedy lawns, more native plants, more yards that have no turf whatsoever and it warms my heart. I’m a sucker for a yard overrun with clover that the bees are bingeing on. Can we find beauty in biodiversity? Can we learn to find uniformity and conformity ugly? Can we learn to love dandelions? I fervently hope we can.
I still dream of that dandelion prairie between the railroad and our tract house. Our childhood landscapes form our way of seeing the world, since they are our first encounter with life outside four walls. For me, that primal landscape is a field of dandelions so thick that I could make a bed of them and stare up at a cobalt blue sky on an earth that seemed limitless.
Bonnie Brewer-Kraus is a fiction writer and essayist who lives in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Her work explores the need for connection, both to other human beings and the natural world. In “Dandelion Dreams,” she focuses on the history of creating landscapes of order by exclusion and the arbitrary labeling of some plants as weeds. Ms. Brewer-Kraus is a former architect whose work on public housing, recreational facilities and fire stations informed her thinking about the power of the built environment to enhance or destroy the natural landscape. Along with her two dogs and husband, she lives in a hundred-year-old house on the Portage Escarpment, the cliff that forms the boundary between Cleveland and Cleveland Heights. She walks daily in the neighborhood, observing the subtle beauties of Ohio weather and wildlife: the vermilion shimmer of a fox disappearing in a meadow, the stately walk of a wild turkey, the stillness of a heron in the middle of a pond. She is humbled by this lovely, fragile landscape. Bonnie Brewer-Kraus’ fiction can be found in The South Florida Poetry Journal, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature and Gordon Square Review.