They come with the spring. Kids pick them to make colorful chains and rub their blooms on each other to create satisfying yellow smudges. Adults, meanwhile, roll out the heavy artillery—the power sprayers, the lawn care services—to try to do their best to eradicate them.
Yes, it won’t be long before dandelion season is in full bloom once again.
The farm my Pennsylvania German ancestors settled along the Will-DuPage County line here in northern Illinois has disappeared under an up-scale businesses and streetscapes of posh new homes, but those bright yellow flowers starting to pop up along roadsides and in median strips are a visible reminder of pioneer settlement days on the flat prairies between the Fox and DuPage rivers.
A family tradition, possibly apocryphal but maybe not, tells the story of how the Pennsylvania German families carving farms out of the prairie between the DuPage and Fox Rivers were disappointed when they discovered in their first spring on the prairie the absence of one of their favorite all-purpose plants. As a result, my settler relatives wrote home and requested family back in Lancaster County send dandelion seeds, which they did.
The rest, as they always seem to say, is history.
Each spring, lawns throughout the Fox Valley are covered with a myriad of colorful, yellow flowerets as the descendants of those fluffy Pennsylvania seeds begin their hardy life cycles. While homeowners try, with varied success, to eradicate these hardy plants, others ease towards a live and let live policy.
“There are really few sights as spectacular as a rich green, well-watered lawn, several acres in extent, perhaps under the spreading trees of a cloistered university campus, covered with a carpet of golden dandelions,” Dr. Harold Moldenke rhapsodized in American Wild Flowers. Clearly, Dr. Moldenke is not a lawn monoculture zealot.
While dandelions may be pretty to look at for some, especially when we remember those dandelion chain necklaces of our childhood, others see them as noxious weeds that do little more than choke out expensively sodded or seeded lawns. Such unkind thoughts towards dandelions are one reason platoons of tank trucks loaded with tons of herbicides invade Fox Valley neighborhoods on a daily basis to fight the spread of those golden flowers that resemble nothing so much as acres of innocent smiley faces.
Dandelions aren’t from around here. By that I mean not even from this continent. The plant is a native of Europe, probably Greece, although its name comes from the French, dent de lion, literally “lions tooth.” Most experts agree the name refers to the plant’s toothed leaves, although one herbalist devoted several paragraphs in a scholarly book to discussing whether the name refers to the plant’s leaves, its flowerets, or its root, which may illustrate how little some herbalists have to do with their time.
The ancients knew that the dandelion’s happy face masked its real potential as a medicinal herb. Its scientific name, Taraxacum officianale, is a living historical note on how well accepted the plant was by the ancient medical establishment.
In his 1763 book, The Natural History of Vegetables, English Dr. R. Brookes reported the dandelion was “accounted an aperient, and to open the obstructions of the viscera.” He observed that dandelions were eaten as a salad, but, he added with inborn English suspicion, only by the French.
Actually, more than the French liked the sharp taste of young dandelion leaves, for that is the main reason my relatives supposedly requested a packet of seeds from their German brethren in Pennsylvania. Not only can the leaves be eaten, but the plant’s colorful flowers can be harvested and used to make a delicious golden-hued wine.
But it is as an herb the dandelion has been most touted, both by 18th Century herbalists as well as by modern natural foods enthusiasts. One herbalist suggests that applications of the dandelion’s milky juice produced in late spring and summer can remove warts. Dandelion tea, made from the plant’s dried leaves, has been used for centuries as a treatment for rheumatism, and has a reputation for keeping the kidneys free from stones if used regularly.
Roasted dandelion roots can be dried, ground into powder, and used to make a coffee substitute that is high in vitamins and minerals, but which has zero caffeine. Nobody says much about the taste, however, and that might be one reason it hasn’t caught on at Starbucks just yet.
Most area residents, however, will not make dandelion tea or coffee. But it is easy enough to harvest the tender young leaves of early spring dandelions and eat them mixed with other greens in salads or by themselves, wilted with vinegar and sugar. Make sure only young leaves are harvested before the plants flower, though, or the dandelion’s astringent qualities will dominate rather than its sharp good taste. Some dandelion lovers continue to eat the plants long after their tender young stage has gone by the boards by blanching the leaves before eating them to remove some of the bitterness.
My own family tradition calls for making a warm sweet and sour sauce which is poured over dandelion leaves to create a complementary dish for potatoes and meat, usually pork chops, pork steak, or a ham slice.
- One egg, beaten
- 1/4 cup vinegar
- 1/2 cup half & half or cream
- 1/2 cup milk
- 2 or 3 slices of bacon, or use pan drippings from pork chops, ham, or pork steak
- Salt and pepper to taste
Dice and cook the bacon crisp, or retain a small amount of pan drippings in a frying pan. Mix in the other ingredients and bring to a boil. Pour hot mixture over dandelion greens, leaf lettuce, or head lettuce to wilt. Serve as a side dish or (as we do) use the sauce as gravy over potatoes served as part of the meal.
The egg gives it a pleasant yellow color (thus our family name for it: yellow gravy) and the half and half (or better yet, cream) provides the sweetness that compliments the vinegar. In my mind’s eye, I can still see my grandmother in coat and sunbonnet digging dandelion greens in her farmyard before lunch on sunny windy spring days in preparation for a dinner of boiled potatoes, canned green beans, pan-fried ham slice, and yellow gravy. Which always makes me appreciate why those Pennsylvania German ancestors wrote home and begged for dandelion seeds.
But I strongly suspect those lawn fanatics who see anything except an unbroken carpet of hybrid bluegrass as an affront to their family honor would just as soon my pioneer ancestors had left well enough alone.
On the other hand, lawncare firms and garden departments in big box and hardware stores that annually rake in millions from dandelion haters may want to consider a monument to those heroic Pennsylvania German dandelion lovers of yesteryear.