Yellow is the first color of Spring at Brightside, the harbinger of a new season, as if sunshine itself were made manifest in flower form.
Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) arrive along the Old Pike road in March, when the ground is cold and will likely again be covered in slushy snow, as it was even in this very mild season. The flowers appear as a surprise, golden sunbursts scattered like doubloons thrown from an unseen parade, stems hidden by fringed flower heads tucked-in close to the brown, winter-weatherworn earth, hoof-shaped leaves not yet emerged. Son-before-father the plants are called, in recognition that the short-lived flowers precede leaves that grow larger all summer, ultimately blanketing roadsides like dryland lily pads. The uninitiated would never guess the quarter-sized flower and platter-sized leaf emerge from the same rhizome.
Not native to North America, coltsfoot was likely introduced by early European immigrants for whom the image of the sunny yellow flower on a shop sign or door post was recognized as the symbol of an apothecary or the residence of an herbalist. Tinctures and teas made from coltsfoot flowers and leaves were considered indispensable in treating coughs and breathing problems. Any woman preparing for housekeeping in a new world could ill afford to be without this essential medicine, and so brought the seeds with her across the Atlantic.
Long ago having escaped domesticity, coltsfoot is now found throughout North America and common throughout the eastern US. Although I’d certainly been in the presence of coltsfoot before moving here, I’d never knowingly seen them, never looked closely enough to distinguish them from larger-flowered dandelions (Taraxacum officinale), with which they bear only a passing resemblance and which bloom about a month later, after coltsfoot flowers have transformed into shaggy seed heads and melted away. It’s hard to remember now, decades initiated into Spring’s order of operations, that once upon a time I didn’t know coltsfoot existed. Back then, I presumed the earliest yellow flower was the ubiquitous and un-loved dandelion. I didn’t scan the slowly greening roadside for two sets of tell-tale leaves, one rounded like a hoof, the other serrated like a saw (or a set of lion’s teeth) because, well, why would I? And while I certainly associated their arrival with Spring in a general sense, I didn’t know that while snow may fall after dandelions bloom, it’s very unlikely to stick. Nature's signs and portents were largely invisible to me.
Little did I know about the plants I’d been raised to casually classify as weeds, garbage-plants to be mowed and dug-up, sprayed and burned, plants worthy only of eradication. I couldn’t imagine—how could I, absent curiosity?—that such plants had once been so highly valued that their seeds were sewn into packets made of cloth and carried across the ocean, precious cargo tucked into the pocket beneath many a colonist’s skirt. Non-native dandelion, like coltsfoot, were among them. All parts of the plant were valued as systemic curatives for a seemingly endless range of bodily ills. No recently arrived housewife worth her salt would have a kitchen garden lacking dandelion, its sunny multi-petaled flowers providing nearly year-long promise of health and reminder of home.
This April, as they’ve emerged, first one here and one over there, today popping up in masses that multiply so swiftly I can almost watch it happen, I’ve felt a once unimaginable affection for the plant. Sure, as a child I plucked my share of dandelion flowers transformed to orb-shaped seed-heads and blew to scatter the seeds as I made a wish. But not at home. At home mostly I remember levering them out of the yard or a concrete seam in the driveway or the bricked edge of a flowerbed with a flathead screwdriver, their removal an inexplicable obsession of grandparents, parents, and, ultimately, husband. I got the message as I took direction: the eradication would be total and relentlessly personal. Each new flower was less a flower than a trespass against ordered perfection, a smiley-faced truant talking back rather than taking orders, standing their ground, refusing to give-up and give-in to the simple monoculture demanded by a nice lawn. The kind of lawn, green and constant and entirely flower-free, that once mattered something awful. Each seed-head, god forbid one emerged along the edge of the carport or between the house and the trash bins, was swiftly beheaded into a brown paper bag. For the most incorrigible cases, chemicals were sometimes, and not entirely regretfully, applied.
I find it almost, but not quite, comical to think of all this now as I welcome the happy plants filling the grassy center of my limestone driveway, dotting the yard around the fire pit in ever more dense patches of sunburst color, popping up around the compost bins, the greenhouse, and the small strip of dirt between the drive and the porch, around the gate post, and throughout the upper field where the Simmons house once stood. Now I know new dandelion greens to be as tasty and nutritious as rocket. I use all the plant parts, dried, as a restorative tea. I see bees and hoverflies probing dandelion petals for pollen and nectar when little else has yet bloomed. Now I think of dandelions, as I do so many heretofore labeled weeds, not as pestilence, but as an expression of natural magic. Without any effort from me, descendants of seeds sown centuries ago flourish on this mountain. They tell me Spring is here for real. Be fruitful and multiply, I whisper. I’m thankful for all of them.
Next month we'll transition them from the porch to one of the chicken coops. Yes, these are our first guineas! Everything we've learned about them augurs for a good fit with our habitat: they're excellent foragers, famous tick-hunters and provide a loud early alarm system when predators intrude. Can't wait to see how they mix with our menagerie.
April is always a challenge when it comes to restraint. While for most of the month, most trees appear winter dormant, and there is little color brightness beyond dandelions and white serviceberry blossoms, the temperature is often, if unreliably, downright summery. A couple days of mid 70s temps with full sun in a brilliant blue sky tempts me to plant seeds for tender plants that have no business being started before June. Over the years, I've learned to wait. Instead, I focus on hardy lettuces, kales, rocket, beet greens, chard and sprouts. These can survive daily swings in temperature, and can be covered with layers of Agribon in the event of the inevitable freeze still to come: I've got my eye on you, month of May. Meanwhile, strawberry plants overwintered in five-gallon buckets are looking good!
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