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[whitespace] Julie Rothman Good Old Stuff From the Garden: Local herbalist Julie Rothman promotes the healing virtues of dandelion root.

Photograph by George Sakkestad


Radical Root

The spindly dandelion--disguised as a weed--lives a secret life as one of nature's most beneficial herbs

By Sarah Phelan

ON THE DAY our story begins--a morning of watercolor skies shot with gold--I'm in the yard when a finch swoops onto the lawn, where it is charged unsuccessfully by my cat, who clearly thinks like a dog since he has never considered the art of ambush. As this cat with the canine consciousness skids to a decidedly doglike halt, I notice that the lawn, which two weeks ago was a parched pelt of brown, has morphed into a field of dandelions.

I stoop to examine the nearest specimen of this überweed and discover a bluish bug crawling across the plant's sunshine-yellow flower head. Each of these flower heads comprises hundreds of tiny tube-shaped sunshine-yellow flowers and when the blossoming cycle is complete, the flower head folds up for a few days to form a greenish snout, which eventually reopens to reveal a parachute-tufted seed head.

When I was a child, I used to pick these seed heads, which I called dandelion clocks, to tell the time. (Blow on the seed head, so the game goes, until all but a few stubborn seeds are left clinging; count these seeds to determine what o'clock it is.) I pick a dandelion clock from a neighboring plant and hold the fragile globe against the sky until a gust of wind breaks its translucent symmetry and sends a stream of seed toward my neighbor's yard.

I used to not think of dandelions as enemies. An apartment dweller for most of my life, I counted myself lucky if I had access to a window box let alone any weeds. And when I finally did rent what passes for a house in California--a toolshed-sized shack, in my case--I let the lawn, which was three times bigger than the house, grow into a meadow of clover and sun-bleached grasses, a look I judged infinitely preferable to the chemically treated emerald buzz-cuts favored by my neighbors.

My landlady did not share my outlook. During my subsequent eviction, she cited the "state of the lawn," along with the presence of one unauthorized cat, as reason I was an undesirable. And though I know in my heart that the case didn't really hinge on weed control, evidently it has left its mark, because the sight of my lawn's rising tide of dandelion seed suddenly makes me panic.

A QUICK HEAD count reveals several hundred dandelions plants in my front yard, each capable of producing thousand of seeds. Clearly, my neighborhood will become Dandelion Central unless I act fast. Sliding my fingers down the stem of the nearest dandelion plant, I grope under its rosette of jagged-edged leaves until I have a solid grip, then yank hard. I almost topple backward, as the dandelion stem snaps at the base, leaving the root intact and in the ground. Tough little buggers, I mutter, just as a memory of my long-deceased father digging up dandelions with a special tool surfaces.

Down at the hardware store, a pasty-faced clerk guides me to Aisle 7, where I find dandelion diggers neatly stacked between flea sprays and ant traps. They look little better than oversized forks and surely not worth their $12 sticker price.

Indeed, over on Aisle 8, a 24-ounce bottle of Weed B Gone, decorated with a fearsomely spiky-leafed dandelion, can be had for $7.76. Only one problem: this herbicide's primary ingredient is 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, which has been linked to canine lymphoma in dogs whose owners treat their lawns with weed killer. So, on behalf of all dogs, cats who think they are dogs, and the whole damn ecosystem, I shell out the extra $4.24 for the dandelion digger, which, come to think about it, is a planetary bargain.

Back home, my new tool slices into the-still-damp-from-early-morning-fog earth, allowing me to dig down and around the dandelion's pinkylike taproot, then effortlessly twist the whole plant up and out of the ground, with roots, leaves and flower head intact.

One, two, three hours pass in this way, at the end of which I have filled a green 2-quart recycling bin with more than 200 plants. I stand back to admire my work--and realize my lawn is now riddled with holes as if some mini-meteor shower just hit, but I'm too hot and tired to worry about that right now.

The next morning, I wake with a major headache, which doubles when I discover the empty bottle of painkillers. Suspecting my headache to be PMS related, I rifle through a holistic health-care book for women, and as the recycling truck pulls up and noisily relieves my green bin of its organic cargo, I read that "the herb dandelion is a liver detoxifier, which assists hormones in doing their work and often provides a natural cure for headaches."

Turns out that the dandelion, found just about everywhere except deserts and the tropics, is the world's most widely recognized weed--and its most overlooked herb. As herbalist Steven Foster writes in Herbal Renaissance, "We try every means to remove it from our lawns. Maybe the better tactic would be to remove the grass from our lawns and encourage the dandelion instead."

One of the few places you won't find many dandelions is at UCSC's agroecology farm. As UCSC's Farm and Garden manager Christof Bernau explains, "Dandelions don't stand up to our constant digging and planting conditions."

According to Bernau, bees love the ones that do spring up, and he likes to use what he describes as "the aesthetically and architecturally beautiful and totally gorgeous seed heads" as tools for demonstrating one method of seed dispersal--in this case wind-borne parachutes--to schoolchildren who visit the farm.

"Though all the dandelion's parts have beneficial purposes, its roots are the most widely used parts," says Bernau, who recommends a visit to herbalist Julie Rothman, who uses dandelion root in teas.

I FIND JULIE ROTHMAN at the end of a winding country lane somewhere in the hills of Corralitos. Brandishing a giant stirring spoon, which she uses to make potions and salves, Rothman describes herself as "one of the last remaining herbalists in town, given the push in Santa Cruz for Chinese medicine." And though she likes to grow medicinal plants from all over the world, the willowy Rothman often ends up using what she describes as "good old stuff from the garden."

"People treat weeds like plants from the wrong side of the border," she says, as she leads me through a jungle of flowers, cacti and herbs to her dandelion patch.

"Yes, people also think of the dandelion as a garden weed, but how cool, how comforting to know that this champion liver herb, which tonifies and nourishes, and with which everyone has associations, grows everywhere," Rothman explains.

She recommends that people dig up dandelion roots in the fall (from a herbicide-free yard), since that's when the leaves' nutrients and energy will have been translocated into the roots in their highest concentrations.

As she prepares some dandelion root--along with yellow dock, nettles, licorice, rosemary and yerba santa--to make Love Your Life tea, which she sells through the Herb Room under the Flower Power Teas label, Rothman briefly explains the resurgence of natural medicine.

"Once the scientific model became dogma, anything natural went by the wayside and so people went from using roots to prayers to potions to pills to antibiotics--and now back to roots again."

Derived from the French phrase dent de lion, meaning lion's tooth on account of its jagged-edged leaves, a dandelion by any other name (sun in the grass, tramp with the golden head, swine's snout) would look as yellow--and have as many beneficial uses. Pee-in-bed, another folkloric nickname, is a not-so-subtle hint at the plant's diuretic properties. As Rothman puts it, "Dandelions are a whole package of medicine, with every part of the plant having a beneficial medicinal and/or nutritional use."

In Dandelion Medicine, herbalist Brigitte Mars includes a recipe for wine, that most brilliant of poetic concoctions as distilled by Ray Bradbury in his short story "Dandelion Wine." And while, Rothman has never made dandelion wine, which, she says, "involves six cups of dandelion petals!" an anonymity-seeking docent up at UCSC's Farm and Garden has--using a mouthed 5-gallon stone water crock, which he stored under his bed so he could hear it burble.

"You have to wait until you can hear it going 'glip, glip, blop, blop' and catch at just the right time, or it will turn into vinegar," explains this dandelion connoisseur, who while running a program in New York in which children were bused out into countryside, remembers a kid who on spotting his first dandelion shouted, 'Hey teach, what's this son-of-a-bitch flower?'"

All of which makes me realize that I know enough about dandelions to leave them be.

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From the August 15-22, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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