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In praise of dandelions

Bright, vigorous, and clever, do they deserve the scorn they attract?

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MELANIE STETSON FREEMAN/STAFF

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I have yet to come across an essay or poem – even a haiku – in praise of dandelions. This gloriously irrepressible celebration of springtime or early summer, as populous as it is unpopular, is often portrayed as Public Enemy No. 1.

If a manufacturer of herbicides wants to demonstrate in a TV commercial the instant effect of its lethal product, it is bound to be a dandelion that is given the honor. One moment it is ebullient and flourishing, the next it has obligingly withered. No right-minded gardener, it is assumed, will mourn its demise. 

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But the herbicide, however expertly applied by the most fastidious horticulturalist, is never more than a temporary solution. Given a few months, the dandelion will revive and once again call for expensive herbicidal intervention.

In short, the dandelion is a splendidly resilient success, and we should learn to value it, or at least live with it tolerantly. After all, apart from its admirable persistence, it has other virtues. If we could change our attitude we might even see it as remarkable, beautiful, and inoffensive.

I’ve been very dandelion-conscious this year. The asphalt bicycle path along which I daily exercise our two dogs has a chain-link fence on one side that separates us from a highway surging at the foot of a steep bank. On the other side of this path is wild ground more or less left to its own devices. It is not a planted meadow. A very small patch of it is mowed once a year at most, no more. Otherwise it simply gets on with life as nature intended. It is full of wildflowers, grasses, trees, shrubs, heather, and gorse. 

It is the narrow strip of ground that runs along the bottom of the fence that turns out to be perfect for dandelions. Lately, it has been alight with thousands of these miniature yellow suns. Each flower is, in fact, like a child’s rendition of the sun in paint or crayon, a circle of yellow rays with a hotter center in school-bus yellow. It is not a delicate or subtle flower head. It is brash, emphatic. It shines out even when everything around it is growing fiercely and freshly. 

This favored ribbon of dandelions by the fence, stretching as far as the eye can see, reminds me of a poem that is quoted so frequently in the British spring that it has to be a great piece of literature to avoid being no more than a yawner. Wordsworth didn’t title it “Daffodils,” but that has become its name. “They stretched in never-ending line/ along the margin of a bay....” Our local dandelions may be strung along the margin of a highway, but their magnificence is not so different, in essence, from Wordsworth’s host of native narcissus in the English Lake District. The dandelions have arrived where they are without human planning or planting – wildflowers propagated by seed – though children sometimes help the process by blowing on dandelion seed heads.

Each seed is equipped with a tiny parachute. Carried on the wind, it can lodge more or less anywhere, which explains the continual arrival of dandelions in our garden – in everyone’s garden.

Wild daffodils, much rarer, do not come out of the air like that. 

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“Wild” or “natural” gardening has become increasingly popular. Where impressive hybrids once ruled, native species are tolerated or even encouraged. 

The annual Chelsea Flower Show used to feature a small stand hosted by a determined and outspoken lady, Miriam Rothschild. She was happy to swim against the horticultural tide. She showed modest specimens of wildflowers instead of the magnificent giant delphiniums and phlox that were the latest (and often ugly) offerings of the hybridizing nurseries.

I am not sure, however, that even this champion of the commonplace showed dandelions on her table. 

Writers who promote naturalism in gardens rarely bother to mention dandelions. A classic book of the genre, “A Gentle Plea for Chaos,” by Mirabel Osler, first came out in 1989. In the footsteps of the great 19th- and early 20th-century advocate of wild gardening, William Robinson, the book proposes a looser kind of gardening, particularly around the edges where garden meets nature. But even Ms. Osler seems to have no interest in dandelions.

This species flourishes with abandon regardless of gardeners with their hopeless nostrums or murderous intent. The dandelion is what many would call “a weed” and is feared accordingly. Gardeners are embarrassed and ashamed when this renegade shows up cheerfully in their patch, and they frenetically try to eliminate it.

Their annoyance is misplaced, however. Dandelions, glorious heralds and denizens of spring, are here to stay. Here, there, and everywhere. We might as well enjoy them.