A Toast to the Dandelion

Story by Carly Leusner | Photo by Elaine Papa

When I notice the first dandelions beaming their yellow pollen-laden flowers boldly and unapologetically across meadows I can’t help but rejoice! Their cheerful presence reminds me that solar-saturated days have officially returned, that the hundred different pollinators who rely on those sunny flowers as an early nectar and pollen source are at last well fed, and the liver-cleansing medicine my winter weary body craves is now easily accessible at nearly every turn.

We share this delight with deer and rabbits, munching on tender dandelion leaves for a welcome dose of vitamin A, B-complex, C, D, potassium, zinc, iron, and calcium. It’s summertime, and for many creatures, the living is indeed easier.

Touted as harbingers of health for much of human history, dandelions have been cast out, alienated, and maligned in modern lawn culture in the U.S. Still eaten and appreciated all around the world, dandelion seeds and roots were carefully carried by European colonizers across the Atlantic, hoping to sow their closest plant allies in their new home. Seed catalogs in the 1800s included several dandelion varieties and county fairs featured homegrown dandelions as one of the many potential prize-earning entries.

Now suburban lawns receive more pesticides per acre than agricultural land even though 63% of commonly used pesticides are known carcinogens. Millions are spent on herbicides every year in an effort to kill dandelions. We’ve become disenchanted and disengaged, turning our backs on the plant that had always kept us feeling human, connected, like our familiar ancient selves.

Falling in love with the common plants that grace our backyards can transform our perspective; help us to see the same beauty our indigenous ancestors saw. A new ritual I’ve committed to every year, for enough years now that it feels routine, has certainly changed mine. My annual spring rite—aside from gobbling wild greens so fast my body reverse ages—is harvesting four gallons of dandelion flowers to brew sparkling dandelion mead, or honey wine, for celebration and ceremony throughout the year.

I fell into mead making inspired by Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation, his enthusiasm for fermentation and grasp of its strong influence on human history and culture, urged me to begin brewing and fermenting. I longed to be a part of the same legacy of folk who healed their friends and family with homemade potent herbal elixirs. Dandelion mead was my first adventure.

“Mead” tends to conjure caricatures of Vikings guzzling foaming steins in the minds of modern people, who dismissively raise their eyebrows at mead enthusiasm as a one-dimensional fascination with obscurity. Our ancestors would raise their eyebrows right back. Far from obscure, mead is our original libation. The simplest mead is honey, water, and wild yeast. As the story goes, humans encountered fermented honey for the first time in a rain-water-logged beehive. Since then, mead, an intoxicating brew and often spiked with medicinal plants, has inspired poetic ecstasy and spiritual euphoria throughout human history, long cherished as a bridge to the divine.

Mead has a reputation as a life-extending elixir in mythology and lore, which speaks to the health-giving properties of honey as well as the potentiating and preserving effect of alcohol on the medicinal herbs often added.

Since my first stab at mead making, my relationship with the awe-inspiring alchemy of bees, flowers, yeast and water each year deepens. Each May, with each turn of the wheel, I find myself feeling more human, more like myself, finding enchantment in all corners. I find real magic in my growing relationship with dandelion, satisfaction exploring the fields where she grows, and well up with feelings of deep reverence for the sky fairies who synthesize flower essence into a substantive food and potent medicine. I enjoy the company of other creatures who accompany me in the early morning gentle sun. Witnessing the joy and surprise my friends experience when they first sip the subtly bitter, floral, effervescent elixir makes my heart sing. All these memories of place wait bottled like a genie, bring me the comfort of easy summer living on the darkest days of the year.

Beginning with her childhood days making dandelion mud pies, wild-crafting remains a vital, integrated part of Carly Leusner’s life. She co-founded and runs Acorn Kitchen, an educational collaborative, specializing in nature connection and wild food cookery. Check out their 2015 schedule at www.wearewildfood.com or find them at the Northampton Tuesday Farmers Market.