Bald Eagles

Ode to the tough and versatile dandelion – Timesherald

Community Life

By Mike Weilbacher

In the last decade of writing this column, I’ve written about bald eagles cruising the Schuylkill River, peregrine falcons diving from St. John’s steeple in Manayunk, a rogue black bear crossing the Wissahicin, coyotes roaming Domino Lane, huge snapping turtles hit by cars and rescued by the Schuylkill Center wildlife clinic, monarch butterflies flitting all the way to Mexico.

But you probably haven’t seen eagles, peregrines, coyotes, or even that bear.

So here’s a creature you’ve probably seen thousands of times – in fact, there’s probably one outside your door within 10 paces. Let’s enter the world of dandelions, that weed of weeds, the bane of suburban landscapers and the one plant an entire Home Depot aisle is dedicated to destroying.

And yet it thrives.

I thought of the dandelion because it has an extraordinary life history, and like the millions of plants and animals that share Roxborough with us – yes, there are millions of creatures that inhabit the world on our doorstep – this one is special.

Although it is not a native American plant but rather imported from Europe, where it spreads across the continent to Asia, it might surprise you to learn that it was brought here. deliberately – to plant. In the gardens if you can believe it. Because every part of the dandelion is edible, and back then, without Whole Foods or Acme nearby, hardy edible plants growing in your garden were needed. Its greens were eaten raw or cooked, the flowers made into syrup and wine, its roots roasted as a complement or substitute for coffee, its buds boiled like a vegetable, its crowns – the place where the leaves meet the roots – boiled and also eaten.

Best of all, dandelions still grow well into December, and I’ve seen it bloom in early February – its hardiness was valuable then, and the fresh greens in February-March at that time were nothing short of to save lives. And these greens are packed with vitamins, which again in those days were essential, as vitamin deficiency diseases like scurvy and rickets were commonplace in colonial America, especially since the winter was turning into spring and the supply of root vegetables was probably low. . So for 10 or 11 months of the year you can find dandelions growing – it’s crazy.

Therefore, botanists gave the humble dandelion the lofty scientific name Taraxacum officinale, which loosely translates to “the official remedy for everything”, because its vitamins saved colonial lives. (Oh, the Lenape were extremely knowledgeable about the full supermarket of native plants; the settlers, however, were ecologically illiterate when they arrived in North America.)

While we have long forgotten how useful it could have been, people are starting to reclaim its story. The teachers at Schuylkill Center’s Nature Preschool have, over the years, turned her flowers into syrup that our students happily lapped up, and Whole Foods, for God’s sake, sells things like greens. Imagine the most common lawn weed in America suddenly being sold at high prices in chichi grocery stores! I picked some recently (from a place where I knew there was no chemical spraying) and served it at home in a salad – it was bitter, but luckily my wife loves strong greens and we were delighted to eat dandelions. Free.

And as someone who constantly thinks about climate change, I also admire dandelions. There will be winners and losers as carbon dioxide concentrations continue to rise, raising temperatures and causing erratic weather patterns at the same time. While the losers will far outnumber the winners and the planet’s biological diversity will suffer, studies indicate that the dandelion will be a winner from climate change. Ten years ago, Indiana scientists grew dandelions in a lab with essentially double the amount of carbon dioxide in the current atmosphere, already nearly double what it was before the start. of the industrial revolution. They were amazed to see the plants grow, much taller, with more flowers, more seeds and more parachutes.

Since hearing this study on the radio, I have noticed much larger dandelions in my neighborhood; they seem much sturdier than I expected.

In a climate-challenged world, we’ll need organisms that can survive—and the hardy dandelion tops the list (bad news: that same Indiana study found that poison ivy does just as good.)

Discover a dandelion flower head soon – one head can produce between 50 and 175 seeds, and given the plant’s long growing season and the number of flowers it can produce year-round, a dandelion plant can pump 5,000 seeds into the air every year – which can parachute very far. And the seeds can live nine years in the ground waiting for the right conditions for germination.

Oh, the land stewardship team at the Schuylkill Center will always choose the plant when we see it growing in our forest – we try to preserve native plants while eradicating others – but we have a grudging respect for the dandelion, a plant that will survive climate change, and probably anything humanity can throw at it.

Mike Weilbacher runs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough.