On dirt and dandelions
Easter in 2008 was almost as early as is astronomically possible. Although my column date misses both it and the vernal equinox, to honor the holiday and season I would like to share a reading that I love, an allegory of resurrection using soil as the metaphor: "The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.
"It is alive itself. It is a grave too, of course. Or healthy soil is. It is full of dead animals and plants, bodies that have passed through other bodies. For except for some humans - with their sealed coffins and vaults, their pathological fear of the earth - the only way into the soil is through other bodies. But no matter how finely the dead are broken down, or how many times they are eaten, they yet give into other life. If a healthy soil is full of death it is also full of life: worms, fungi, microorganisms of all kinds, for which, as for us humans, the dead bodies of the once living are a feast. Eventually this dead matter becomes soluble, available as food for plants, and life begins to rise up again, out of the soil into the light. Given only the health of the soil, nothing that dies is dead for very long. Within this powerful economy, it seems that death occurs only for the good of life. And having followed the cycle around, we see that we have not only a description of the fundamental biological process, but also a metaphor of great beauty and power. It is impossible to contemplate the life of the soil for very long without seeing it as analogous to the life of the spirit. No less than the faithful of religion is the good farmer mindful of the persistence of life through death, the passage of energy through changing forms."
- Wendell Berry, "The Unsettling of America"
Abundance of eggs
I used to jest ironically, when urbanites remarked how plentiful eggs were in spring, "Why do you think they have Easter at this time of year?"
Eggs are piling in now. Trying to extend the abundance makes sense but one can always give a dozen eggs to friends - better than chocolate.
I usually aim to make plum puddings for the coming December; each batch of my recipe uses four eggs. The woodstove while in operation is the perfect set-up for pudding steaming. The puddings improve with aging; I store them out of the way in the back of the beer box. Other kitchen goodies extend the egg glut, one of which is lemon curd. Many good recipes exist, another appreciated gift with a shelf life.
Say "Yes!" to dandelions
The time when lawns and waste places become starry with their egg-yolk yellow flowers is upon us. I pulled a fully blooming Vineyard Haven specimen in February! Few plants cause such a contradictory, love-hate response as the dandelion.
Welcome and cheery as a sign of spring, dandelions "cause" vast herbicide use and pollution through homeowners' and lawn services' egregious attempts to eliminate them in lawns. (Their presence may indicate heavy or compacted soils - aeration may help.)
Actually, "dandelion season" is virtually year-round. The plant is perennial and persistent; on the Island its leaf rosette, if not the flower, may be found in any month. Their botanical genus is Taraxacum, in the Compositae. The name employed when referring to it as a medicinal plant is T. officinale, but there are many species; they are valued in the Chinese, Arabic, and European herbal traditions. Dandelion is cultivated in France and Germany. Roots, leaves, and flowers are all used.
In early March, I enjoyed hearing the herbalist Deb Soule, of Avena Botanicals in Rockport, Maine, speak on pollinators, at the Winter Conference of the Ecological Landscaping Association. She sprinkled her talk throughout with interesting medicinal plant profiles and associations. Dandelion is, needless to say, a critical spring bee food.
"If people only knew..." Ms. Soule made an emphatic plea to the audience of landscapers to intercede with their unenlightened clients on behalf of the dandelion, for the benefit of pollinators and because of the astonishing array of healthful properties dandelion possesses. Her grandmother's generation in Maine, she related, were knowledgeable and never failed to gather dandelion for use as food and medicine: detoxifying, diuretic, laxative, tonic. Leaves and roots are high in desirable potassium. In particular, gardeners with chronically cold hands and feet, Ms. Soule claimed, may cure the condition by drinking dandelion tea.
When I got home I checked the Internet and several reference books for additional information. Andrew Chevallier in "Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants" (DK Publishing Inc. 1996, 336 ppg.): "Diuretic - Dandelion leaf is used as a diuretic and to treat high blood pressure by reducing the volume of fluid in the body," while giving a net gain of potassium. "Detoxifying remedy - Dandelion root is one of the most effective detoxifying herbs. Working principally on the liver and gall bladder to help remove waste products, it also stimulates the kidneys to remove toxins in the urine. A remarkably well-balanced remedy, the root encourages steady elimination of toxins due to infection or pollution. It has major therapeutic benefits for many conditions, including constipation, skin problems such as acne, eczema, and psoriasis," and chronic degenerative joint diseases.
Tammi Hartung, In "Growing 101 Herbs That Heal," (Storey Books, 2000, 250 pgs.) writes that dandelions are finally gaining the respect they deserve, finding favor among chefs and drawing good prices at farmer's markets. In sync with the growing respect, communities including Aspen and Carbondale, Colo., have declared it illegal to spray herbicides to eradicate them. She advises harvesting the whole plant or roots by using a garden fork. Roots are best harvested in early spring or late fall, whereas the whole plant may be harvested at any time during the growing season.
The "Random House Book of Herbs," Roger Phillips and Nicky Foy, (1990, 192 pgs.) reiterates the above: dandelion's richness "in protein, sugar, vitamins, minerals and bitter principles... a wholesome food as well as an active medicinal herb." The French method of serving is recommended: "young leaves with vinaigrette and bits of crunchy bacon...delicious."
Most herbal reference books include methods of preparing and using different parts of dandelion. With this information, if I cannot convince its owner to appreciate it, I intend to harvest every "wrong-place" dandelion I find, and use it myself.
In Island news, the annual Spring Potluck Supper and Social at the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury will be held Saturday, April 5, at 6 pm.