Dent-de-lion or fairy clock, with its sharp jagged leaves and gossamer seedhead, is almost universally despised by adults yet adored by children. What four-year-old has not cheerfully picked a fistfull of dandelions and presented it with pride to parents or grandparents, saying, “These are for you! I picked them myself!” What parent has not watched with some dismay as their young child delightedly puffed on the feathery seedheads, sending seeds drifting across the neighborhood.
And yet in earlier times the dandelion was happily grown in medicinal gardens. Its common names hint at its usefulness as a diuretic: pis en lit, piss a bed, pee in the bed. According to my herbal guides, all parts of the plant can be used safely. An infusion of the leaves and roots can help the liver, gallbladder, and kidneys function normally. To stimulate the appetite or improve the complexion, drink dandelion tea or eat fresh leaves regularly. To treat warts, dab on a little of the white juice that flows from the plant when cut (you should not, however, be alarmed if the warts first turn black before disappearing, according to The Country Diary Herbal ). During World War II, when coffee was in short supply, many people substituted drinks made from the chopped and roasted roots of dandelion. The leaves are full of vitamins and minerals and can be eaten fresh in salads (though Joy of Cooking recommends that you cut the leaves early before the plants flower).
Many of my neighbors have recently begun their battle against dandelions, going around their yards with spray bottles, taking aim at the lion’s teeth. Not wanting to use chemicals on my yard but wanting to be neighborly, I try to dig the dandelions out, trying to get the entire taproot using a pointed digger, preferably before the seed heads form. Seldom can I get them all, of course, and within days new dandelions will have sprouted all over the yard. A couple years ago, I had let them go too far before attempting to dig them up, so I decided to make dandelion wine. The recipe calls for a quart or so of flower heads to make a gallon of wine, which didn’t seem like too much, but I didn’t notice until later that the recipe said not to leave any of the green parts in, just to use the yellow petals. Naturally, this ended up being a bigger project than I had thought, pulling all the tiny petals off the green caps until I had a quart of them. And that was only the beginning.
Making wine is not a hobby for the impatient. After I had filled a quart measure with yellow petals and mixed them with the rest of the ingredients (sugar, water, golden raisins, acid blend, Campden tablet, yeast energizer, tannin, yeast), it was time to begin the long period of waiting: waiting for fermentation to begin, then waiting for it to slow down, then straining, racking, re-racking until the wine was “clear and still” and finally ready to bottle. Then after bottling, more waiting until that unknown future date when it would actually be drinkable (at least six months, according to the recipe). Even at that, I probably should have let it ferment a bit longer before bottling, until the wine was completely clear. I picked the dandelions in April 2008 and bottled the wine almost a full year later, in March 2009. Five months after that, in August 2009, I tried the first bottle, optimistically humming to myself, “dandelion wine, feeling fine” and imagining a lazy afternoon by the creek, but I was seriously disappointed by the harsh and unfinished taste of the wine.
But this week, after digging up dandelions all one afternoon, I decided it was time to try the wine again. With some trepidation, I went down to the basement, where the three remaining bottles have been fermenting on their sides inside a dark box for over a year, and picked out a bottle. After I poured myself a drink, I held the glass up to the light and noticed with a smile its deep golden color (with only a hint of cloudiness). Perhaps this would be all right. Next I swirled the liquid in the glass and smelled the bouquet several times, pleased with the bouquet of all those golden afternoons rolled into one. It was time to taste the wine.