The Dandelions Are Coming!

GUESTWORDS: By Richard Rosenthal

    It’s April and the dandelions are back.
    “We hate dandelions,” sniffs the soccer mom in a Scotts lawn care commercial as her husband, agile and bonny, rolls for a Frisbee on an expanse of pristine grass.
    Cities, states, and even a branch of the United States government agree.
    “Grub them out,” roars the California Agriculture Extension, warning of clumps that reduce the aesthetic quality of turf grass and golfer footing on the fairways. Topping California, a Utah State University horticulturist, Jerry Goodspeed, has warned that dandelions employ a “wicked plot” that “attracts any passing child” to “whimsically blow the dreadful seeds around the neighborhood.”
    The wicked plot can cost you. The city code of Pueblo, Colo., decrees a $300 fine plus eradication costs for dandelions that grow to 10 inches (easy for a well-fluted specimen) on a property’s lawn. Aberdeen, S.D., outlawed them as far back as 1909, when its mayor, Alva Aldrich, beseeched residents to “eradicate this evil from their lawns.” Over the years, the local government paid bounties on dandelions equivalent to the prevailing price of wheat. With help from the American Legion, tons of dandelions were burned.
    They’re still at it. In 2006, Sue Gates, a columnist for The Aberdeen American News, wrote that 100 years after the war was declared, “the fight to eradicate the pesky weed from the lawns of Aberdeen continues.”
    In 2000, East Hampton experienced a crackdown by the feds. An inspector from the Department of Housing and Urban Development ordered the manager of Windmill Village to eliminate all dandelions from the lawns there because they were beneath HUD standards for the Hamptons.
    Botanical nativists label dandelions as undesirable aliens. My 88-year-old sister, a Berkeley liberal long before the term meant much, gladly welcomes aspiring immigrants of all stripes, but snarls at dandelions, though they were brought here from Europe in the early 19th century (to succor honeybees), decades before our own forebears arrived.
    To the Taraxacumophobe, it matters not that poets from Shakespeare to Lowell to Ginsberg, as well as Emerson and Thomas Wolfe (“the inchoate sharp excitement of hot dandelions in young spring grass”), have rhapsodized about their beauty, or that chefs such as Pierre Franey, Julia Child, and Craig Claiborne extolled their culinary virtues, or nutritionists their vitamin and mineral content (more iron and calcium than spinach, more beta-carotene than carrots).
    Dandelion lovers revere what dandelion haters detest: their unpredictability. “Their only sin,” asserts one admirer, “is that they have not learned to grow in rows.” Another equates dandelions with the 19th-century buffalo — noble, useful, and targeted for extinction.
    Both sides see dandelions as a moral issue. Robert Fulford, a Canadian writer and dandelion admirer, observes that the presence of dandelions on a lawn indicates to lawnistas that “sloth has taken up residence in paradise and is about to spread evil in every direction.” To Mr. Fulford a bumpless, weedless lawn champions the intrusive values of imperialism — control and cleansing one’s surroundings of the unkempt.
    On the other side, Pastor Donald J. Gettys of the McDonald, Tenn., Seventh Day Adventist Church preaches that “Sin and dandelions are a whole lot alike. They are a lifetime battle that you never quite win.” He advises us to “Give the problem to Jesus.”
    I cheer them. Dandelion greens, plucked from vacant lots of San Francisco, were a basic vegetable for my family during the Depression. John Giannaris, owner of the Hellenic Snack Bar and Restaurant in East Marion, tells me that in Greece during World War II dandelions kept his family alive. In Germany in 1945 I saw Polish displaced persons and German Army deserters survive on them.
    Busy proliferating, often where one least expects to find them, the dandelions remain impervious to all this. On a sunny day last spring, I found them sprouting through the base of a street lamp, the shell of an air-conditioner, the trunk of an oak tree, and the wood of an inside windowsill.
Though at their peak in spring, dandelions continue to pop up through the year, into those early January days when the temperature nears 50. Bend close to grass that has not been sprayed and you will find one. Pick it. Nip its stem and hold it in your mouth. Relish the juice that will refresh your lungs and bear the flower’s progeny to the next cycle, and the next, and ever beyond where dandelions will continue to taunt and sustain us.

Richard Rosenthal is the author of “The Dandelion War,” a satire on Nimbyism on the South Fork. An East Hampton resident, he won the Alliance for Community Media’s 2010 Jewell Ryan-White Award for the quality of nonmainstream broadcasting on his LTV program, “Access.”