Of all common wildflowers I’m fondest of dandelions, and the largest specimens I’ve ever seen grow in the Pacific Northwest. Stalks measure 15 inches or more and the sprawl of one plant’s serrated leaves on the ground can exceed two feet. Their beauty is the principle reason for my admiration, abetted by the repugnance they inspire in consumers of lawn care products. Dandelions are the crows of the herbaceous realm, humble, scorned and implacable.
Wednesday afternoon I accompanied my younger sons and other Cub Scouts as they distributed food-drive announcements. The boys walked door to door hanging flyers on doorknobs while I stood at the curb monitoring traffic and dogs. We’ll return Saturday to collect the hoped-for canned goods. I had plenty of time to observe the modest suburban neighborhood we were canvassing, including a grand old cedar that must have measured 12 feet in diameter at the base, but dandelions stole its glory.
At one street corner, in the crack where the pavement ought to meet the curb, I counted 14 of the yellow-flowered weeds. Carefully I pulled the largest from the gap in the cement, and its tap root was at least a foot long. Taraxacum officinale is an ideal creation – beautiful, adaptable, tough and edible. Emily Dickinson admired its brazen optimism in a poem from 1881:
“The Dandelion's pallid tube
Astonishes the Grass,
And Winter instantly becomes
An infinite Alas –
“The tube uplifts a signal Bud
And then a shouting Flower, --
The Proclamation of the Suns
That sepulture is o'er.”
Has any poet ever chosen unexpected words with more precision and aptness? “Astonishes,” “An infinite Alas,” “shouting,” “sepulture.” That last is tricky, easily mistaken for “sepulcher,” a close synonym. But “sepulture” also means burial or internment (from the Latin sepultus, “to bury”), Dickinson’s usage. Her line carries a hint of resurrection, of triumph over dormancy and winter’s false death. Even a weed is sometimes more than a weed.