Friday, April 27, 2012

Teeth of the Lion*

File:Taraxacum officinale - K√∂hler–s Medizinal-Pflanzen-135.jpg
Source: Kohler's Medizinal-Pflanzen.
Accessed through Wikimedia Commons.
On a recent trip to Illinois, I stood admiring the cheery yellow dandelions in my sister's front yard. Combined with the new green grass, the stubby little flowers just shouted "Spring!" and on that clear, sunny day, I could think of no finer symbol to celebrate the season.

My sister confessed that she liked them, too, and that many people had been commenting on her bumper crop of dandelions. However, as she wryly noted, most of the comments she received were the opposite of appreciative and were more along the lines of, "Why don't you just get rid of them?"

We got a good chuckle over how far out of step with cultural norms we are, but the dissonance stayed with me. How did we decide as a culture that dandelions, which were once viewed as a valued source of food and medicine, an important soil enhancer, and a welcome harbinger of spring, were just weeds to be removed? When did we decide that a green lawn, devoid of diversity and kept that way through chemicals, was the ideal of outdoor beauty?

A quick trip around the Internet unearths an entire field of academic study on the history of lawns and their sociological meanings. Beginning with English manor homes, where expansive grounds were once used for animals and gardens, lawns evolved into recreation areas as the the tasks of growing food could be outsourced. That style was emulated in the new country of America, in places like Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, and really took off once early post-war suburbs were developed. The concept of a private patch of green became more entrenched with the growth of modern suburbs and their increasingly larger lots (and a standardized work week that allowed time to care for a lawn). As lawns continued to be symbols of land ownership and growing wealth, the concept of what makes a yard became more and more refined until all that's left is a monoculture of green, only sightly different than the felt on a pool table. Reading more about lawns and dandelions makes me realize, once again, the amazing power advertising has to reflect and amplify changing cultural norms so that within a few generations, a plant that was once respected for what it could provide became something to kill because it was different.

So. Dandelions. You don't have to dig far to see that throughout history, dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) have been, if not revered, then at least highly respected and useful. For example,
  • Their leaves provide excellent levels of Vitamins A, C, and K, and calcium, potassium, iron, and manganese. No wonder previous generations welcomed these plants after a long winter of eating root vegetables. Recently, a recipe for sauteed dandelion greens came across my FaceBook news feed. Could dandelions be next new thing that is really an old thing?
  • The flowers and roots can be used in a variety of beverages - tea, wine, coffee, and root beer  (when is the last time you thought about root beer as being made from, um, roots?)
  • Bees love 'em, butterflies and moths do, too. These early spring flowers are an important source of pollen for honeybees when there's not much else to snack on, and butterflies and moths also flock to the cheery flowers.
  • As any gardener who has tried to get rid of dandelions knows, the plant has a serious taproot. But this pain-in-the-neck root is actually beneficial - it efficiently brings up deep-soil nutrients to benefit nearby plants with shallower roots by adding minerals and nitrogen to the soil. 
  • The plant is a pharmacologic powerhouse, with compounds that have been used as diuretics, anti-inflammatories, anti-coagulants, and other important medicines. In fact, Canadian scientists have recently received a grant to evaluate the anti-cancer effects of certain components in dandelions based on promising research in animals. 
Obviously, dandelions are more than a pretty flower to be plucked by children and proudly presented to their moms to stick in glass jars. They are really important plants. So important that, apparently, dandelions were some of the plants that the colonists brought with them to America

I write all this not to encourage you to grow dandelions, but to think about what makes a yard. We spend so much time,  apply so many chemicals, spill so much fuel (17 million gallons each year!), use so much water, and experience so many injuries to create an unbroken field of green that, really, is nothing more than a green desert. Ron Jones, over at GreenBuilderMag has a nice blog post that references data from "The New American Landscape: Leading Voices on the Future of Sustainable Gardening," including the concept that Americans apply three times as much synthetic pesticides on their lawns as farmers do on a per acre basis. Those pesticides, some of which are banned in other countries,  have been linked to all sorts of health problems, for humans and animals, not to mention environmental issues. (Here's a link to a previous HealthTwisty post on some specific health issues related to atrazine.) 

The next time you read an ad for lawn chemicals, or 10 ways to get rid of dandelions, read it critically. Look at who is profiting from selling the concept of having a monoculture yard and consider why this standard of beauty evolved. Then think of what's missing: dandelions and clover and all the other local and regional plants that provide greenery, diversity, food for insects and animals, and encourage healthy soils


* A French physician named the plant "dent de lion" or "teeth of the lion" to describe the ragged shape of the leaves.