It’s the first day of the stay-at-home order, but I’m in a field in Northern Virginia, fifteen miles from my home, bowing to finger through the speedwell, cleavers, purple deadnettle, purslane, chickweed, and clover. I’m collecting a plastic grocery sack full of fat, wide-open dandelions. My thumbnail is grimed with the gooey black sludge of lush stems. My fingers and palm are coated with a thick yellow paste—dandelion pollen. The world feels like it’s in a scary freefall; but in this moment I’ve found a meditative rhythm. Peace of breath and motion amidst the furor.
I brew flower wines. Dandelion wine is one of my favorites to make. Every spring, I am out somewhere in the DMV, collecting dandelion heads, so that I can stew the flowers with sugar, citrus fruit, and spices, then ferment the mix into a golden-yellow wine. A year and a few months later, the taste mellows into a smooth and ginger-sweet beverage. It’s been my spring ritual for five years now, but the process has taken on special significance this year, the year of Coronavirus.
The Value of Small (and Common) Things
Most people think of the dandelion as a spring nuisance. They are remarked upon for their weed-y tenacity—their fierce yellow heads and scalloped leaves take root in a crack in the pavement and in disturbed soils where little else would choose to grow. Found around the world, dandelion is known by a number of names that reference its bitter taste, golden and mature flowers, and its ubiquity: bitterwort, cankerwort, clockflower, common dandelion, blow-ball, puffball, Irish daisy, piss-in-bed, pissinlit, priest’s crown, swine’s snout, telltime, and yellow gowan. Its English name is said to be derivative of the French dent-de-lion or lion’s tooth.
The plant itself is remarkable for its resilient bioengineering. Its tap root reaches deep into the dirt and will re-grow a whole new plant if broken off. What we see as a single yellow flower is, in fact, a head of unique florets, each with its own seed. These will dry into the highly recognizable puff ball and scatter on the winds in its later stages of growth. For wine making, you want to pick only the flower. The greens—the involucral bract, receptacle pedicel (or stem), any small trace of grass leaf or stray deadhead–will turn the wine bitter.
Some sources claim that dandelion was brought to the US with early European colonists who planted medicinal herb gardens, thus seeding the North American continent. Its medical uses are extensive and the dandelion has been used around the globe—in Arabian, Native American, Chinese and Ayurvedic medicinal practices—to treat a range of ailments. Naturopaths and herbalists of today note the immunostimulatory, antitumor, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and anticoagulant, and antioxidant properties of the dandelion. There’s no shortage of online sources or recipes to harness the dandelion’s “healing” power.
The origin of dandelion wine is often ceded to the ancient Celts and Anglo Saxons, though the Greek naturalist Theophratus prescribed a “dandelion tonic” to treat freckles and liver spots. Northern Europeans historically drank the wine and derivative liqueurs to prevent scurvy and as a diuretic and laxative. Folklorists have collected dandelion wine recipes from home brewers across Ireland, the UK, and Northern Europe, and subsequently in many US-locations where the Gaels and other Northern Europeans settled—an inexpensive and useful spring brew.
This Work of My Hands
My forays for dandelions this spring have all been edged with a sense of audacity and purpose—an act of resistance in a time when leaving the house carries any number of social implications. And yet, I couldn’t shake the need; I had to make wine this year. I needed the brush with normalcy after all the other cancellations, plan b’s and setbacks of the previous months. I craved the comforts of a detailed and time-consuming project.
Gathering enough dandelions is the first and the hardest step in making dandelion wine. The trick is to find a field or lawn that has not been treated with fertilizers or weed killers. I prefer to gather away from busy roads and areas that have been or may be polluted with exhaust or other run off. I also avoid the “pee zone,” which often coincides with dandelion hot spots, such as busy corners and walk ways where dogs habitually mark.
Planning for and strategizing collection typically begins in mid-March as I case potential sources. Some years, when I lived in a rental house outside the city, I was able to collect in my yard and from neighbors. Another year, a friend invited me to collect on his aunt’s farm in Maryland. In other years, I have haunted the fence edges and abandoned plots of community gardens.
This year, my first in the city proper, I’m sharing a 900-square foot condo in SW with my partner, so I can only turn to shared spaces—the spaces that are increasingly forbidden—for what can be collected. Parks and facilities have closed. Hains Point and the Tidal Basin are completely cordoned off. People are wearing masks and bandanas when they do venture outdoors. I’ve seen people recoil from the proximity of others—even when outside on a broad path in a city park—to maintain six feet of distance.
Finding a source for dandelions in the city-limits initially daunted me. The constellations of flowers I saw in many closed parks, in the church yard just down the street from my grocery store, and beside the closed schools down the street—all—were simply out of bounds. I couldn’t be sure they hadn’t been sprayed or graced by dog or human by-products.
As the weather warmed the flowers became more assertive, appearing defiant and gleeful in every patch of grass and on every corner. But none of these spots provided the right place to pick.
I was anxious and preoccupied for a few days. I paced the fenced line of a vacant, overgrown lot that awaits construction, calculating whether I could jump over or shimmy under or squeeze through. Through the gaps in the landscaping fabric zip tied to the chain link, I could see plenty of clusters of dandelions waving in the wind. Over dinner, I ruminated on whether I’d be arrested if I was caught in the field.
I texted friends for recommendations—one suggested a closed park in Ward 7. Others shrugged—who paid attention to dandelions? I finally made three trips to one of my usual suburban picking grounds, coming home with two good bags full of flowerheads. But these were not enough for my preferred recipe—so we took to our bikes on a scouting expedition.
The fields along the Anacostia bike path offered all the dandelions I still needed, the stretches of overgrown boundary-turf hadn’t been mowed, there were no signs of spray, and the walkways had lighter dog and pedestrian traffic than usual due to the city’s closures. My partner and I picked together for an hour, him impatiently asking me if we had enough yet—did we have enough now, is this enough now, how about now? Even once we had enough, I couldn’t break my habit of scanning the greens we passed, riding up from the Nationals Stadium, over the Benning Road bridge and behind Congressional Cemetery, and back through the Navy Yard.
There’s a method to it, I’ve discovered, after so many years of picking. Rifle through the other weeds and pull the flower free of other leaves and greens. Grasp the flower just under the head with pointer and ring finger, pull the stalk taut. Sluice the head from the stem with your thumb nail. If you simply pull up, the stem will stretch and snap off closer to the leaves. You will then have to pair off that little bit of stem—which you do not want in the must.
After our trip up and down the Anacostia, I tucked three plastic grocery bags full of dandelion heads in the freezer so that I could begin to brew the next day. I could breathe again. There was going to be wine this year.
A Forager’s Meditation
Collecting dandelions, their yellow heads a different sort of corona, in the age of global pandemic is low risk in comparison to a trip to the grocery store or going about many aspects of daily business as usual. There’s little risk of infecting others when out alone (or with a partner) in an empty field. But neither is going among the weeds sheltering in place. Or giving in to fear because we still cannot know what will be irrevocably changed by our global pandemic.
The weeks of lock down and social distancing have brought my relationality and interdependence into much higher visibility. I have been forced to reflect on what goods and services I take for granted, the supply chain that sustains me, and the patterns of employment and movement that sustain my friends and family. None of us are able to comfortably escape questions about how we share quarters and public spaces with our neighbors, friends, and family. We have yet to see the enduring impact this experience will have upon our communities and our daily-relations going forward.
I’m reminded then, that flower wine making—and so too our crafting, making, baking, singing, and sharing—are how many of us hold hope, if not optimism, closely. We imagine a future of many promises.
A year from now, the flavors of 2020’s flowers will have blended with lemon zest and spices. The yeast will have fermented and died off. The wine will have been bottled. It will settle, clear, and mature. I will uncork a bottle and think back to this time in a similar spirit, grateful that our difficulties are behind us.
Michelle LaFrance is a writer and poet, living in SW. An English professor at George Mason University, Michelle teaches writers to love every stage of the composing process. She loves a good homebrew, misses live music shows, and still can’t stop looking for dandelions to pick.