In March 1971, I turned twelve. That spring and summer I spent a lot of time singing the Coca-Cola jingle, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” a song about love and harmony. And in May of that same year, while I sat in a chorus of dandelions on a sunny day, I was in harmony with hundreds of them growing on the hillside in front of our weathered barn. Warmed by sunshine, surrounded by velvety yellow, and sitting with my best friend, I was in love with the world. As a child, dandelions were my favorite flower.
ButI didn’t know their name was derived from the French phrase dent de lion meaning tooth of the lion, most likely because their serrated leaves look like teeth. I thought dandelions were named after lions because their round, shaggy, golden flowers resembled a lion’s head with a fluffy mane.
On that May afternoon, with my strawberry blonde hair topped by a crown of braided dandelions and a face freckled by the kisses of sunbeams, I watched butterflies and bees flit from golden bloom to golden bloom. I was fairy princess meets flower child.
But I didn’t know that dandelions were flowers—like asters, daisies, and sunflowers, all belonging to the same family, Asteraceae. That by the 1800s people could buy different varieties of dandelion seeds from catalogs to plant in their gardens. That Emily Dickenson wrote a poem about them and made mention of them in three other poems. I’d been told they were weeds.
My friend, wearing her own crown of dandelions, had brown hair, hazel eyes, and just a sprinkle of freckles across her nose. We plucked the flowers from the ground, choosing tall ones, and braided their thick, flexible stems, making necklaces to match our crowns. She, too, was fairy princess meets flower child.
But I didn’t know that a dandelion’s thick, hollow, supple stem had evolved to withstand strong winds. That our plucking the tall flowers would cause the next dandelions to grow shorter, hoping to avoid being picked. That when a lawn mower lopped off their flowers before they could seed, dandelions countered by sending new blooms to squat closer to the ground, hoping to keep their heads below a mower’s blades. I didn’t know dandelions had the survival skills of a toothy lion on an African plain.
As I plaited dandelion stems, a white, milky sap stained my fingers, making them sticky. I knew it wasn’t poisonous, and that it would wash away with soap and water.
But I didn’t know the substance was latex, a bitter tasting compound that protects dandelion roots from insects. I didn’t know dandelions were edible. That their leaves could be eaten in a salad and had more nutrients and vitamins than the spinach that gave Popeye the strength to defeat Brutus. That their roots could be dried, roasted, and made into a coffee-like drink. That their flowers could be made into tea or wine. That dandelions had been used for medicine, alleviating diseases caused by deficiencies in calcium, iron, and vitamins A and C.
I’m not sure what my friend and I chatted about that day. But I was crazy about the boy next door, and she was crazy about a boy she would eventually marry. We probably gossiped about those boys, our friends, and summer plans. And talked about the latest fashions and hairstyles because each of us wanted to fit in at the middle school.
But I didn’t know dandelions were considered a blight upon lawns because my parents never treated our yard with herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers. I didn’t know that in the 1800s wealthy Americans would admire the expansive green manicured lawns of wealthy Europeans and would copy their style. That with the invention of the first mowers in the 1830s, middle-class Americans would soon covet green manicured lawns, a nod to status and belonging. The dandelion slid from grace and became a weed.
My friend and I rubbed dandelions under each other’s chins to see who liked butter, a childish game for a pair of twelve-year-old girls who talked of boys and love.
But I didn’t know twelve was the cusp between youth and young adulthood. That the buttery-colored powder was pollen, a delicacy for bees, butterflies, and insects. That dandelion blooms were masses of tubular florets, an early spring smorgasbord for hungry pollinators while they waited for other flowers to open for business.
Dandelions didn’t grow in our next-door neighbor’s yard. They treated their lawn every year with a powdered chemical. If someone had asked my twelve-year-old self to explain why my parents didn’t do the same, I would’ve chalked it up to money and time. The neighbors had more income, so they could afford weed killer. They had less than an acre of land, and my parents had two point two acres. It would’ve taken more money and time to kill the dandelions in our yard.
But I didn’t know my parents weren’t conforming to a neighborhood standard of weed-free lawns. That the neighbors had to keep treating their lawn every year. That dead shriveled leaves of poisoned dandelions left small barren spaces where new dandelion seeds, blowing in on a wind like Mary Poppins, could settle and thrive. That dandelions could regenerate from parts of their surviving roots. That if the neighbors stopped treating their yard, dandelions would once again crowd their lawn.
On the day I sat in the dandelions, I knew my great-grandfather had immigrated to America from Sweden in 1869. That other relatives had emigrated from Ireland, England, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, and Hungary.
But I didn’t know that dandelions were immigrants too. That the first wave of dandelion ancestors came over the Bering land bridge and settled as far east as the Great Plains. That the second wave arrived in the 1600s, carried across the Atlantic by European settlers as an herb used for medicine and food.
Later in the spring the dandelions would go to seed, and I would fill my lungs with air, hold the seed head in front of my mouth, and blow as hard as I could. If I dispersed every seed, I would earn a wish, and I always wished the boy next door would be my beau.
But I didn’t know the feathery seeds I blew into the air in the service of love would fall to earth at an angle, and the barbs along their edges would hook into the soil. The seeds, like me, would wait to see if their wishes would come true.
My friend and I watched my orange-and-white cat, Napoleon, hopelessly swat at butterflies as he lazed nearby in a layer of gold. At best he was an indifferent hunter, preferring to take his meals from a can and to leave nature’s creatures unharmed.
But I didn’t know that Napoleon had the good fortune to lie on an untreated lawn. That people, pets, birds, and insects could be harmed by chemicals. That a woman named Rachel Carson had written a book called Silent Spring. That as an adult I would be pressured into treating my lawn. That I would use my children and pets as excuses to avoid having herbicides and pesticides sprayed on my lawn. That I would dig hundreds of dandelions by hand to avoid chemical treatments. That after decades, I would learn that dandelions are early pollinators and that I would stop digging them.
The sea of dandelions that flooded the sunniest part of our lawn every spring, made my young heart zing. From that sea I picked buckets of bouquets, braided countless crowns and necklaces, buttered scads of chins with pollen, and blew thousands of fuzzy seeds into the air. But I remember best that day in May 1971 when I was twelve, and my friend and I sat among the waves of gold and talked of love while plaiting crowns and necklaces. While the butterflies and bees gathered pollen in harmony. And I wanted to teach the world to sing.
The Reader. “In Praise of the Dandelion” by Jim Lundstrom
Lives of Weeds: Opportunism, Resistance, Folly by John Cardina