Dandelions: the bright lemony grin of spring

Are they weeds or wildflowers? A homeowner takes an environmental – and aesthetic – stand.

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When I was a child, back in the 1950s, I did not search for crocuses or jonquils as the first signs of spring. Instead I looked for the bright lemony grin of dandelions popping up in our yard. In our Memphis, Tenn., neighborhood, lawns were not today's serious carpets of pure, solemn green. They were cozy collaborations of grass and weeds – often a triangle of Bermuda, zoysia, and crab grass. The dandelions added cheer and pizazz, I thought, and we kids quickly incorporated them into our play: As soon as the stems were long enough, we wove ourselves crowns of dandelions. We played house and created dandelion stews and goulashes. We played wedding and walked down the aisle of our sidewalk, strewing golden petals.

As the dandelions grew older and wiser, they became our impromptu runes. We watched for them to get frizzy with fuzz. Then we made a wish and took a deep breath, trying to blow away all the seeds. If the flower head was bald, our wish would come true, we hoped. If stragglers remained, only portions of our wish would materialize.

We were romantic children, caught up in games of pioneers and pirates. We used the dandelion to name the person we would marry. We selected an overripe flower, then blew. We counted the plumes that were left and then matched them with the appropriate letter of the alphabet. We also used the dandelion to comfort us – its silky maturity felt magnificent, and we loved releasing the seeds to the wind.

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This spring, I have decided to reclaim my relationship with the dandelion.

For some years, I have felt ashamed of the dandelions growing in my yard. My discomfort began when I moved into a neighborhood where the lawns were sternly green, and intruders, even those that were harbingers of spring, were not welcome. For a year or two, I hired a lawn service and reluctantly complied with the unofficial code. But then I decided I didn't want to harm the water supply or wildlife with chemicals just so my lawn could fit in.

I intended to sit in the grass and dutifully pluck out the offending lions, but my life fell apart. I got divorced. My income dropped, and I was dealing with multiple multigenerational family issues.

Although I felt guilty my lawn was not beautiful in the traditional way, I could not spare the time or money to fix it. Then I received a copy of the neighborhood newsletter. Featured on page 1 was an article about the dandelions in my lawn. This was no love letter to nature, no appreciation of the golden flower or the shimmering rosette of leaves. This letter criticized the homeowner, me, who had allowed such weeds to sully the yard – and thus denigrate the neighborhood.

I was shaking when I called the president of the homeowners association.

"I am a single mother with a complex life," I said. "I do not want to put chemicals on my lawn, and I do not have time to pick out the dandelions. If you are so bothered about it, you are welcome to bring over a group of neighbors for a dandelion-deleting session."

"I'm sure we didn't mean to hurt your feelings," he stammered out. The weed-plucking session never materialized, but an apology appeared in the next month's newsletter.

Today, I live in a different neighborhood. The atmosphere is more relaxed, although I am in the minority with my chemical-free lawn. So, once a year for several weeks, I have an abundance of dandelions. Even when the lawn is mowed, those resilient wildflowers spring to life and stand tall.

This year I have decided to go even further – to get rid of my shame over them once and for all.

I have decided to be proud of my dandelions and what they mean. My dandelions remind me that natural beauty comes in so many admirable forms, if we are only willing to see it. They remind me that the price we pay to have smooth green lawns may include affecting ground water and wildlife.

This year I am looking at my dandelions as a symbol of caring for the planet, and I hope that others will be able to do the same.

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