Saturday, April 15, 2000

Dandelion Days: Edible weeds and old trees still blooming

White blossoms covering the skeletal form of the apricot tree in front of the vet clinic presaged the spring snow. For a day the snow weighed heavy on the daffodils and covered the newly emerging leaves on the crabapple tree. The snow melted and the daffodils lifted up again like hope. The cedar waxwings are heavy into the wrinkled crabapples now, grabbing them as others are falling off the tree. Dark-eyed juncos stopped by too on their way back to Canada ...

Some dandelions are just beginning to form flowers, so there is still time to dig them out of the lawn before they flower and become bitter, whenever you can get to them between the snow melting and the sun shining. High in calcium, potassium and Vitamin A, the botanical name says it all: Taraxacum officinale: the official remedy for disorders. Your neighbors will probably be delighted to let you yank theirs out too, until they recognize their virtues too. On a day that is dry, the roots dig out easily with a trowel. Winter cress leaves, too, are still to be found, just starting to send up flower shoots. These little buds look and taste like broccoli, and the leaves spark with earthy flavor.

White violets are blooming. The humble violet is only humble in the sense of its affinity for humus. No humility in its tremendous Vitamin C content or its lovely flowers that serve as edible adornments to salads. The leaves are rather bland so they're good mixed with dandelions and other greens. Where I saw a clump of violets growing wild near a tree in my backyard, I cleared away the other little plants so as to encourage them to grow and spread.

The intense flavors of greens cooked or raw wake up the tastebuds. They can be mellowed by adding the leftovers the next day to eggs, burritos, casseroles, stir-fries and soups.

In these days of convenience, gathering plants in the wild may seem strange. You can go to the supermarket and get your veggies pre-cut and scrubbed. Tops even had dandelions for sale recently. But the experience of roaming the extravagant aisles in Wegmans produce section does not match the total experience of being outside and in tune, aware of the air dense with birdsong and, of digging the plant from the ground carefully and easily, remembering with a smile all the enemies of dandelions, while watching the work of the earthworm, whose presence is a good sign. A time for the no-rush attitude... of movement flowing with mind, purpose with play.

In a previous existence, it was a matter of survival to gather food when available and to process it immediately. Now it feels a like a deep luxury to take the time to act on the produce the day it is at its freshest. No longer a physical survival need, it has become an inner necessity, a spiritual need, an act of resistance to a culture which has stripped us from our connection to nature. To some, it is drudgery to pull weeds and sort them according to what goes to compost and what will be saved to eat, and then to separate out the best leaves from yellowed and rotted ones and from the grass blades mixed in and tear off the dark roots, and then to plunge them into a cold water bath, swish them around and lift them gently out into a colander. They're all ready to cut up. The water clinging will be just enough. To me that's life.

The weeds that have been following humans around for millennia need not be our enemies. The penchant we have for clearing land only invites them. By making use of them and appreciating their beauty we make our peace.

In the planted garden, as opposed to the semi-wild world, the lettuce is up, spinach, arugula and mustard, green onions and now the peas and snow peas too. Garlic is doing well over in the community gardens. The Walla Walla sweet onions sowed as an experiment in the fall have sprouted bravely bearing witness to the milder winters we are experiencing.

The venerable old cherry tree that anchors the neighbor's yard is opening its first white blossoms, and even the pink flowers on the frail peach trees in my own yard are waking up for yet another year. Old for peach trees, they will never achieve the girth of the cherry tree. The trunk is splitting and oozing sap; they have lost so many dying limbs to pruning over the years that the branches remaining are twisting and reaching out like dancers suspended -- The robin likes to sit in its branches late in the day facing the setting sun; its breast burning red seemingly from within.

Someone told me once that this neighborhood was originally populated by Italian workers after the swampy land was filled in back in the twenties. It is to them we have to thank for the many fruit and nut trees still growing and spreading their seed. The mother of my daughter's friend remembers coming to my house to visit her friend long ago (when I was living far away), and seeing her friend's father planting sticks in the ground. They were doubtful when he talked of the fat peaches to come. Now those peaches in jars in the basement bear witness to the miracle.