Digging dandelions
Celebrating 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 brewed.

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 issues?”

Brian Carter and Katrina Blair have started the Dandelion Brigade, which will remove unwanted Dandelions at people’s homes./Courtesy photo.
The Dandelion 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.

If 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 octave.”

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 taste.

-Blend and enjoy!

Us dandelion lovers may be a small, odd group, but like the yellow blooms themselves, with time we will spread.








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