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Now that the children have returned to their teachers and their books, most of the work I do at the park is focused on the pollinator garden. This thoughtfully planted and gently curated landscape has come a long way since I started the job in June. Pathways have been cleared, gravel has been spread, and new podiums stand ready to be laden with identification guides. Most of this comes thanks to one of our interns. I'm only paid labor. As I stand out on this patch of land, sweating in the sunshine, visitors pop in and out asking questions. Most of them want me to identify plants and usually I point to the plant tags that might be half-hidden in greenery. Being newly transplanted myself, I'm not familiar with the local flora just yet. I only know that everything we have is, unlike me, native.
Freeing herbs and perennials from the grasp of an aggressive passionflower vine, I am reminded of something my organic gardening professor told my class one semester. He said, "The definition of a weed is just a plant that's growing where we don't want it to." This passionflower, for example, is also found growing on the fence five feet away from where I'm detangling tendrils. I'm going to tear out the plant that's taking over the flower bed, but leave it to happily take over the fence.
Although I think the vine's flowers are pleasing, they're not my favorite. Neither are the Turks caps nor the sunflowers. The milkweed and the trumpet vines are nice, but don't top my list either. No, my absolute favorite flower - one that I love so much that I had it tattooed - is Taraxacum officinale, otherwise known as the common dandelion. It's an under-appreciated gem that most people take for a weed. Meticulous lawn owners gasp to see the little yellow flower of a dandelion poking up out of their grass. They're vilified and wantonly sprayed with herbicides when they should be lauded and encouraged to thrive. Why? I'm glad you asked.
If I were judging flowers strictly on the basis of appearance, I'd pick the dandelion. Its fuzzy yellow blooms are basically sunshine in flower form. Once that cheerful display has expired, the flower changes its appearance completely. Playfully fluffy and soft, the dandelion's seed head has prompted many generations of kids to make wishes, blowing on the flower to let the wind carry the fluff away. I don't think I knew, as a child, that I was spreading dandelion seeds to the rest of the yard. I don't think it would have stopped me though.
If I were to judge a flower strictly on the basis of usefulness, the dandelion would win again. How many other flowers growing in the park can be made into wine? Someday, I hope I'll get to taste dandelion wine. It looks like sunshine in a bottle. The wine is made with the bright yellow petals. Since this plant is in the aster family, what we think of as one flower, is actually a composite of several small flowers. Yeast and sugar supply the fermentation. Add in some citrus juice and zest for flavor. Once the mixture is fermented and decanted, the wine gets bottled and aged. The trick is finding a patch of dandelions to harvest that haven't been sprayed with herbicide.
If I were thirsty, I might opt for dandelion tea instead of wine. The entire dandelion plant is edible; flowers, stems, leaves, and roots. The tea made from these parts has a great many medicinal qualities, as well as vitamins. The whole plant can be washed and chopped, soaked in hot water for an herbal tea or the roots alone can be roasted up and imbibed as a coffee substitute. Since I'm not keen on pharmaceuticals if I can achieve the same effect with plants, dandelion tea is one of the things I look to when I'm a bit bloated as it treats water retention.
If I were hungry and yearning for vitamins, I'd reach for dandelion leaves. It's the toothy appearance of the leaves that gave them their name. Dent-de-lion is French for "Lion's tooth." I know that kale is all the rage, but for a power pack of nutrients, look no further than the humble dent-de-lion. They contain vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin K. Calcium, potassium, and manganese are supplied as well. Pop those babies in a smoothie! Many of the benefits of dandelion tea can be found in the leaves, including reducing cholesterol and blood pressure. Fiber helps out the digestive tract and beta-carotene could help prevent aging.
If I were a farmer, I'd be on the lookout for dandelions. Not, as one might expect, in order to eradicate them, but to learn about my soil. Dandelions have a long taproot (the big main root). This lets them go deep to find water and soil minerals. In the process of hunting for these resources, however, the dandelion is helping to loosen up compacted soil. Once that long tap root has pulled up calcium and other valuable resources, those will stay at the surface when the dandelion dies, providing easy access to other plants. When it's shady, sometimes grass can't grow. Dandelions do well in the shade and can outcompete grass in dim areas. So, they are a good indicator when sunlight conditions aren't right for other plants. But, if my field were overrun with dandelions (and they were the right kind), I could harvest them for rubber!
The garden where I work doesn't have any dandelions in it. They get weeded out along with the excess passionflower. But I'd love to encourage a whole plot of them to grow so that I could bring in the kids and let them smudge their cheeks with fragrant sunshine in flower form.
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Dandelions are the Best Indicators of… (Stefan Sobkowiak)
How to Make Dandelion Tea Plus Dandelion Benefits (Herbs and Natural Remedies)
How to harvest, prepare, and use dandelion leaf and root for beauty and health (Blissomagirl)
13 Potential Health Benefits of Dandelion (Healthline)
Dandelion Wine (Chop & Brew)
Harvest rubber dandelion for natural rubber (KeyGene)
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