Dandelions: cheery signs of spring

Proponents of pristine lawns gripe about the yellow intruders. But for some homeowners, the sunshiny flowers are always welcome.

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    Cheerful flower: A bee flies toward the bright-yellow petals of a dandelion on a sunny day in Newdale, Idaho.
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Spring. It's a wonderful word evoking visions of returning "firsts": first crocus, first robin, and first balmy breeze. But for me, images of spring are heralded by another first – the dandelion.

Proponents of pristine emerald lawns gasp at the very notion of those bright yellow intruders. But in my yard, the cheerful little flowers are always welcome.

Dandelions, you see, have a lot to say for themselves, in several languages.

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There appears to be multinational agreement regarding the appearance of their sharp-edged leaves, earning them the name of lion's tooth in Greek (leontodon), Latin (dens leonis), German (Löwenzahn), Italian (dente di leone) and Spanish (diente de león). A mispronunciation of the French version, dent de lion, is believed to be the phonetic origin of our "dandelion," further evidence that the maligned plant has classy roots.

("A weed by any other name...." Alas, this weed has lots of other names!)

How uninterruptedly green our grass must have been before dandelions were brought to the US from Europe, all those "perfect lawn" elitists must think with a sigh.

Containing copious nectar, the immigrant plants were imported to provide food for bees, which in turn provide us with dandelion honey.

Happily generous not only with its nectar, each yellow bloom also contains many individual flowers, and, consequently, many seeds (54 to 172 per flower head), which are an abundance of wealth or a horticultural purist's nightmare, depending on who's doing the judging.

But dandelions more than earn their keep, I think, with their bountiful benefits. They can be made into tea and jam. Those ubiquitous leaves may also be cooked like other greens, such as spinach, and can be used raw in salads.

Parts of the plant are used as a mosquito repellent. In some areas, large crops of dandelions are grown so their roots may be harvested and roasted for use as a coffee substitute.

But maybe in their happiest task of all – dandelions are a children's flower. Unburdened by adult "do-not-touch" admonitions like those for thorny roses, dainty delphiniums, or elegant orchids, dandelions seem to welcome the embrace of small, sweaty hands.

Their bright Crayola-crayon yellowness, like feathery sunshine, is the perfect stuff of special bouquet offerings:

"I picked these just for you," says the little girl with golden pollen dust on her tiny nose.

"Smell them, smell them!" she begs, until you, too, have matching gold dust on your face. They smell of sun and light and innocent joy. They smell of childhood.

And like energetic, playful children, dandelions open every morning and close up at night.

Then, when the time is right, the dandelions' bright-yellow strands fold into themselves, and as if by some sort of hidden magic, transform into airy, white, feathery balls.

"Make a wish and blow," you tell the little girl who brought you dandelion bouquets. She does, and miniparasols detach themselves, floating away in spring-warmed air.

"Like blowing out candles on a birthday cake," she says.

In Germany, children who send dandelion seeds dispersing call the fluffy orb a Pusteblume or "blow flower."

According to other flowery traditionalists, the metamorphosed bloom is called a "dandelion clock," with which one can tell the hour by how many "blows" it takes to send all the "parasols" into the air.

I compare my backyard dandelions to Wordsworth's lovely daffodils "dancing in the breeze."

But they are definitely different. With sturdy stems and hardy blooms, dandelions are plain, simple, forthright. They're not choosy about where they live and grow – you can find dandelions punctuating the brown-green ground of abandoned fields, roadside borders, and small earthy patches almost anywhere.

Sometimes they emerge through cracks in city sidewalks – small vibrant faces of sunshine defying colorless concrete.

"Persistent pests," say the dandelions' lawn-loving enemies.

"Stalwart and courageous," counter their admirers and loyal friends.

Indeed, in Norway, the cheerful yellow flowers represent strength in the face of adversity.

There, "dandelion children" is a term describing those who, although neglected by their parents and left to fend for themselves, somehow keep their faces "turned toward the sun" and, in spite of all, survive and bloom and grow.

In this peculiar-weather year of 2008, we await spring's emerging light and life, the exchange of blustery cold for balmy breeze. We wait, too, for the light of peace and freedom to emerge.

But the dandelion is undaunted. No matter how winds blow or temperatures rise and fall, the persistent plant arranges its lion's-tooth leaves on still-brown and crunchy ground, raises its bright-yellow head toward whatever sun there is, and proclaims, "No matter what, it is spring, and I am here."

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