the much-maligned weed
|Photo by Todd Newcomer
It is officially the start of dandelion season. This
yellow ripening is recognized equally by those who pluck
the plant for food as those who gaze on their speckled
April lawns and think weed killer. Melanie Rose, owner
of Hummingbird Herbals, belongs in the first category.
And last weekend, with a bottle of dandelion wine in hand,
she sponsored the second annual Dandelion Festival.
The weekend long festival is held at her College Drive
herb shop, a 100-year-old house with clumps of old growth
dandelions to match. A mixture of free- and low-cost classes
were offered, such as “Cooking With Dandelions and
Other Wild Edibles,” “Dandelion Medicine”
and the popular “Dandelion Beer-Making Workshop.”
When I was able to catch the whirring Hummingbird for
a few moments, I asked her what the Dandelion Festival
was all about.
“Dandelions are a really maligned plant –
I think they’re beautiful – but most people
don’t realize the benefits of these plants and instead
spend a lot of money and time killing them with chemicals
that are harmful to our planet.”
Melanie, dressed as the eggplant fairy, pushed a lock
of purple hair out of her face and continued. “There’s
a mindset that has evolved to want the perfect lawn, which
means a lush carpet of homogenized grass. Lawns are our
most expensive agricultural crop in America, and many
are too toxic to play on, and certainly don’t provide
food. This festival is a celebration of diversity and
the benefits of these humble plants.”
In the back yard, sunny dandelion heads nodded in approval
as Evan Short, barefoot and lit with a smile, shared his
knowledge and enthusiasm for home brewing. Three gallons
of a molasses-colored “dandelion stout,” a
rich beer with a slightly bitter dandelion bite, were
|Dandelion Festival participants
gather at Buckley
Park prior to their parade down Main Avenue on
Sunday afternoon./Photo by Todd Newcomer
Let’s take a moment and examine the dandelion closer:
Each bright yellow blossom is more than a hundred flowers
fused into one, as are all flowers in the sunflower family.
The bee-attracting petals are arranged on the perimeter,
and like flashing neon in the red light district, they
call in admirers. The reproductive parts are in the center
of the flower, a crowded party of pollen-bearing anthers
and sticky, receptive stigmas, all poised for the light
touch of the bumblebee. In time we are left with the fuzzy,
white grandmother-hairdo seed cluster. These windborne
seeds float on their own umbrella puff, carried by a gust
of wind or the wishful breath of a child.
Dandelions were brought to North America from Europe,
considered a prize food and medicine by the early settlers.
And indeed they are. The leaves are tender and mild when
young and grow more bitter with age. But don’t forsake
the bitter flavor that is so commonly found in wild plants,
though bred out of our domesticated greens by thousands
of years of cultivation. Rose explained that bitter foods
stimulate hydrochloric acid production in our stomachs,
which aids in the breakdown and digestion of food. The
bitter flavor also stimulates our livers to produce bile,
the agent by which fats are broken down and excess hormones
and environmental toxins are excreted.
Rose often recommends dandelion root tinctures for people
who work with toxic chemicals or who have hormonal imbalances
or digestive problems. A dandelion root tea can be helpful
when taken for just one week before the start of a woman’s
menstrual cycle, to alleviate symptoms of PMS. The leaves
also are a diuretic, and instead of leaching minerals
like most pharmaceutical diuretics, it adds them back
to the body in large quantities. Dandelion leaves are
high in potassium, calcium, iron, and vitamins A, B and
C. Rose recommends drinking dandelion tea as a nutritional
boost for pregnant women. If all this wasn’t enough,
the stems contain milky latex that is excellent for removing
warts when applied topically.
If Saturday was sedate with classes and workshops, then
Sunday was a time for utmost silliness and dandelion euphoria.
The day started with a parade originating in Buckley Park
and traveling down Main Avenue back to Hummingbird Herbals.
Nathan Ballenger and Michael Rendon were on stilts. Brian
Carter arrived on roller blades in a golden graduation
gown and a yellow feather-draped dream catcher with dandelion
flowers woven in on his head. Katrina Blair was on a unicycle,
and two pixie chicks on skateboards tossed dandelion blossoms
in the air. There were dandelion fairies, someone in real
elk ears and tail, and a Navajo man named Antonio who
was innocently hanging out at the park and got swept up
in the festivities. Poncho, a rez dog, seemed perfectly
at home in the freak show though he had to be firmly led
away from discarded pizza crust at one point.
We never intended to walk in the street without a permit,
but excitement got the better of us. When someone questioned
the legality of this, Tony Grego, who was heading downtown
for some breakfast before we hijacked him into the parade,
said firmly, “I’m willing to go to jail for
dandelions!” Songs were made up on the spot like
Carter’s ditty sung to a reggae tune, “It’s
a dandelion liberation, no more tribulation, join in the
jubilation.” As one song caught on, another would
rise forth from another section of the parade like the
one given life by Isaac in yellow glitter dress, dandelion
pollen adorning his cheeks. “Dandelion lovers unite,
dandelion lovers delight, in the yellow lion light.”
High on stilts, Ballenger had a near accident negotiating
the Diamond Circle Theatre’s awning while Grego
was getting people to honk if they loved dandelions and
someone else was calling out “dandelions, they’re
what’s for dinner.” At one point Carter sidled
up to me on rollerblades and asked “are you writing
a story? Are you going to mention some more serious dandelion
|Brian Carter and
Katrina Blair have started the Dandelion Brigade,
which will remove unwanted Dandelions at people’s
Brigade is a newly formed group, founded by Turtle
Lake Refuge activist Katrina Blair and local musician
Brian Carter. The Brigade will come to your home and
dig your dandelions, roots and all, for less cost
than it would be to spray your lawn with pesticides.
Katrina and Brian will hire from a local pool of laborers
as needed, and all the profits will go to the Children’s
Permaculture Garden, located by the Animas River on
32nd Street. The DB also will teach you how to use
dandelions for food and medicine; bring a bicycle-powered
juicer to your house and make you fresh dandelion
juice; and for an extra charge the DB will make dandelion
wine or beer from your flower heads.
you’re interested in being on the labor crew
or having your yard picked, call Katrina at 247-8395.
Later I got on the Internet and found that there are
more than 3,400 Web site matches for the combination of
words “dandelions and pesticides,” many of
them extolling the virtues of perfect lawns and warning
that “dandelions give a lawn unsightly discoloration
and show neglect.” Pesticides are chemicals that
kill both plants (herbicides) and insects (insecticides),
and our lawns get five times more pesticides per acre
than farmers use on crops. One of the most-used herbicide
for dandelions is 2, 4-D, which contains part of the chemical
compound found in Agent Orange, which caused many cancers,
miscarriages and birth defects in Vietnam. A lot of the
pesticide products currently available still must go through
another 10 years of testing. Just as DDT was once considered
safe, only to be banned 25 years later for causing birth
defects and decline of wild species, the safety labels
on today’s products should be regarded with caution.
On the 47,000 Web site matches of the words “herbicides
and cancer” I learned that there have been thousands
of studies affirming the connection between herbicides
and cancer all over the world.
The war launched on dandelions in Durango is already
under way. I called Scott’s K-Lawn on Monday and
was put on hold for several minutes. When the apologetic
receptionist got back on the line she explained, “It’s
Monday, late April, and we’re swamped.” Scott’s
K-Lawn currently uses Tribec (marketed on some Web sites
as providing “outstanding performance without objectionable
odors to cause concerns”) to kill dandelions and
other broad-leaf weeds in lawns. This chemical is toxic
on contact, and all sprayers are required to wear protective
clothing so no skin is exposed. However, once the chemical
dries (about four hours) and you water your lawn, sending
the chemical to the roots, it is considered perfectly
safe to have a lawn party.
Luckily there are people in Durango who celebrate these
misunderstood weeds. The Dand-elion Duet, consisting of
Katrina Blair and Brian Carter, led a dandelion flute-playing
workshop this weekend. Carter showed the crowd of 20 how
to find the stoutest stems possible and, with the small
scissors on a Swiss army knife, cut little diamond shaped
holes along the stem, after cutting off the flower head.
“If it’s flimsy you can only get a couple
of holes; if it’s real strong you can get a whole
Putting the stem in his mouth and blowing until his cheeks
swelled, Carter belted out an Irish jig, producing different
notes as his fingers played the dandelion stem. We all
tried the dandelion flute, 2-year-olds and grandmothers,
each blowing carefully into the stem opening. The 7-month-old,
Emmett, couldn’t be bothered with such finer details
and was simply stuffing whole flower heads into his mouth.
Antonio, the native man who was still with us four hours
later, gave a few short squeaks on a dandelion flute.
“Turkey call,” he surmised.
We ended the day with the dandelion cook-off, where people
entered food and drinks made with dandelion leaves, roots
or flowers. Delicious entrees included dandelion spanikopita,
dandelion curry, dandelion quiche, dandelion flower cookies,
fried dandelion flower fritters and much more. I was pleased
to win first place for my dandelion pesto:
-Pick one cup of the smallest, youngest dandelion leaves
you can find.
-Wash and put in a blender with BC cup olive oil; a couple
cloves roasted garlic; a few softened, sun-dried tomatoes;
a couple tablespoons pine nuts; and salt and pepper to
-Blend and enjoy!
Us dandelion lovers may be a small, odd group, but like
the yellow blooms themselves, with time we will spread.