My Lake City grandmother patrolled her lawn with a quart of Piggly Wiggly bleach: one jug to drench every dandelion. I see her cotton apron and polyester skirt; her mouth a straight line as she dribbles death.
A dandelion is to kill.
My Knoxville grandmother “cooked up” dandelion greens brought to the kitchen by her mother (Maw, from Mountain City) and her youngest (my future aunt) after they’d walked Mary Street to forage.
“Yum,” says my aunt on Facebook at the recollection from 70 years ago.
A dandelion is to eat.
My neighbor—who does not speak English—lunged off the sidewalk to rise, still walking, still ten paces behind her man, now shaking soil from a bouquet of dandelion leaves.
“Is that bad?” worries my son.
A dandelion is to steal.
My 3rd grader plucks dandelion clocks: the dry seedballs. Sometimes he squats to break hollow stems low, to minimize movement of the sphere, keep the fluff firm, but sometimes he grabs as he goes, and a trail of down arcs up to his face.
A dandelion is to blow.
Dandelions are on my mind because they are on my lawn (and driveway). I like them. So did Thoreau, who described early spring dandelions as “the sun itself in the grass” (and driveway). Not everyone would agree.
Recently, I re-read to a willing listener A Hole Is To Dig, by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Maurice Sendak. It’s a picture book of brief, random “first definitions” for children: the essence of what things are as defined by function. “A hole is to dig,” “dogs are to kiss people,” “ears are to wiggle.” Some definitions are quotes from preschoolers. Humming along under all the dictums, including “a tablespoon is to eat a table with,” is a system. I cannot be specific without taking philosophy courses, but a system there is, and I like it. We should all be so lucky to have lives that support “mud is to jump in.”
Not all kids are as captivated with the book’s reductive definitions. Mine argued.
“The things they say things are for aren’t the only things things are for.”
Exactly. And this time, even I noticed something essential was missing. I found myself wanting to add an entry: one particular thing crucial to the system at play. Luckily, classroom teachers have set a precedent, and have used the book as the starting point it is. Students can riff on the model, generate fresh terms or definitions, and extend the framework.
The missing entry is dandelion. A dandelion is to blow.
Of course, to blow is not the only thing this thing is for. To define a botanical species as the act of blowing its seeds off its stalk is to show my system’s hand, whatever it is. It might not be yours. Or that of the dandelion. It wasn’t always mine. It certainly wasn’t my grandmother’s: she of the bleach. That jug is what started me wondering about other “functions” of dandelions. It led to this: my riff, my oblique extension, relegated to a single artifact.
What is a dandelion?
Dandelion: n. a widely distributed weed of the daisy family, with a rosette of leaves, bright yellow flowers followed by globular heads of seeds with downy tufts. [Taraxacum officinale and related species.] —Concise Oxford English Dictionary
Not everyone recognizes the yellow flower and the white ball as the same plant. Note a comment on an online video of a flower time-lapsing to seed: “I never knew how these two iterations of the dandelion were related. I thought they were two different flowers! #blessed.”
I’ve seen adults on public hikes point to the seedheads and ask for an ID.
A dandelion is to pay attention (#blessed).
Dandelion anglicizes dent-de-lion, tooth of the lion, which describe the leaves, but this spring I noticed teeth on the achenes as well: seeds wear tiny barbs that grapple dirt, bite dog fur and socks. Which means a seed can fly in air, float on water, plant itself, and walk with four legs or two.
A dandelion is to spread.
Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable describes Dandelion clock as “the downy spherical seedhead of a dandelion.” Girls would blow dandelion clocks to discover a Beloved’s secret heart. If seeds flew away, he returned her feelings. If seeds lingered, he had reservations. Folklore does not tell us if boys tested this too, when no one was looking.
A dandelion is to pine.
Dandelion seedlings take eight to 15 weeks to bloom, and after, between nine and 15 days to seed. Pollinators are welcome but not required: “apomictically-produced ovules develop into seeds that are genetically identical to the mom plant” (says the blog of my daughter’s 9th grade biology teacher).
A dandelion is to clone.
Mama had a baby and its head popped off. Chant phrase while choking the stem of a dandelion flower and at off, flick thumb below the head to decapitate. Distance of launch is key. I did this in the 1970s and forgot till I saw it in a folklore index under Pastimes; Game Verse; Belief: Plant; Proverbial Comparison. Less creepy games are to hold the flower under the chin of a friend to see if friend a) likes butter or b) is destined for gold.
A dandelion is to play.
Dandelions are invasive, despised weeds—but to insects they are flowers. Each flower is flowers: about a hundred florets offering pollen and nectar to creatures with little else to eat in our weed ’n’ feed lawns, wintercreeper groundcover, rows of sterile Knockout roses. It’s the first flower of spring, the last of fall, and a surprise in winter.
A dandelion is to bloom.
The U.S. spends 40% of the world’s herbicide market. “Americans have sprayed more than 2.4 billion pounds of glyphosate in the past decade” says a paper in Environmental Sciences Europe, but the stats are just for Big Agriculture. The rest of us buy Roundup at Home Depot. What are our numbers?
A dandelion is to poison.
Dandelions are old medicine. Piss-en-lit, piss-a-bed are names that point to use of roots as diuretic. Taraxacum officinale says medicine, too: the genus comes from the Greek for “disorder,” the species “from the pharmacy.” For fevers, boils, eye problems, kidney and liver complaints, warts, low milk-production, etc, depending on where and when you are from.
A dandelion is to cure.
An Android app lets users load an animated dandelion and blow: to puff literal breath onto virtual seedhead and watch achenes float out of frame. It costs 99 cents. There are not nearly enough seeds.
A dandelion is to fake.
Dandelion flowers become tea, and by the bucketful, Ray Bradbury’s wine. Roasted roots substitute for coffee if absolutely required.
A dandelion is to drink.
Online tutorials teach how to make paperweights from dandelion seeds: to render heavy that which floats through air. An empty vending capsule and polyester resin are required, as is the desire to craft viable seeds into never-to-biodegrade landfill fodder.
A dandelion is to save.
Dandelion seeds do not fly when weather is inopportune. Relative humidity must be below 77% for a pappus to bristle silk for departure. Other tricks: the plant exhales ethylene gas to deter nearby species; stems and roots secrete latex to defend against pests; taproots can stretch 15 feet deep and if broken, can grow a new plant from each fragment.
A dandelion is to succeed.
“Most of the world’s latex, the key ingredient of rubber, comes from the rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis.” Rubber plantations replace rain forests. Dandelion latex can substitute—the tire industry is keen—and need not rob the world of a single migrating bird or butterfly. To test this theory, make a rubber band: coat a finger with white goo from dandelions, let dry, rub it down the fingertip and voila: a tiny loop.
A dandelion is to stretch.
Dandelions came to North America on purpose: a sure thing for medicine and food. Seeds in oilcloth packets? Wax-sealed crocks? Or plants in soil with taproot curled? Mayflower? Jamestown? Or the Spanish, earlier? The vitamin C would have cured scurvy on the journey.
A dandelion is to immigrate.
Hummingbirds weave seed fluff into nests. Not on the outside, where white silk might advertise a cup the size of a pingpong ball, but on the inside, where the female shapes the down with her breast. Both my children have felt ruby-throated heartbeats against their palms. Do they remember?
A dandelion is to cradle.
Dandelion imagery blooms in self-help language, motivational campaigns, developmental psychology. “Dandelion children” are resilient, versus “Orchid children” who are vulnerable.
A dandelion is to metaphor.
When she was little I stopped my older kid from blowing dandelions near the driveway cracks, the vegetable plot, the herb garden. Next time she visits from college, perhaps she will accept an invitation to make up for lost fluff. I will join her.
A dandelion is to redeem.
Dandelion flowers dragged by a child against pavement become a yellow medium: Art. When hammered onto a Walmart handkerchief, a fugitive dye. When the roots are boiled: orange/brown dye. When the whole plant is boiled: maroon. In Minecraft, dandelion dye (always yellow) is a renewable resource in Survival mode.
A dandelion is to color.
Romantic oracular ritual aside, kids in general still wish on dandelions in general. Some sources say to wish on the first dandelion of spring. Some say a wish comes true any time of year, but only if “the whiskers are gone after the third puff.” Some don’t say anything because they are busy wishing on dandelions without knowing or caring about rules.
A dandelion is to wish.
But most of all, a dandelion is to blow.
I’m sorry I forgot to let my mother-in-law blow a dandelion the last time she visited, because it will be the last time. At 85, she was a dandelion virgin, and so she remains. I feel responsible. I suspect she has also never jumped in mud, but didn’t think to ask at the time.
She sat in our Target lawn chair like a queen, and we filled her cupped hands with pretty things out of reach. No dandelions had gone to seed at the moment, and when I described them and what they were for, she didn’t understand.
“I’m a city girl,” she excused, “this is not my culture.”
Even city girls should know what it is to snap a dandelion stalk,
print a white circle on a fingertip with the hollow straw,
raise seed-cloud to lips,
breathe slow to test,
heave one spitting blast,
watch the parachutes fly, float, fall.
Dandelions tell time. Most months, the yellow opens with sunrise and closes with sunset, but the seedball is the famous “clock:” we are to count how many puffs it takes to bald it, to rip every achene loose from its moorings. One o’clock, two o’clock, three.
I wish it were not too late.
A dandelion is to late.