Why We Garden: Reason #12 - The Perfect Plant

Our quest today is to find the perfect plant.

First, to define 'perfect'. No matter how fervent you are about gardening - whether it is merely a business transaction to you or a life-long love affair, at its heart the relationship between humans and their gardens is one of reciprocity. We provide certain things - a sunny or shady place depending on the inclinations of the plant, water, fertilizer, fresh soil, and pruning. We intervene when our plants are threatened by the rest of the natural world - destructive fungi and insects, browsing deer, the neighbor's dog, the neighbor's BMW, the squirrel in your backyard who insists on sampling a dozen cherry tomatoes off the same plant, daintily spitting out the bites he doesn't like.

We expect to receive benefits in exchange for our hard work and vigilance. Our plants must be beneficial to the soul - beautiful to look upon, or else pleasantly fragrant, or (as with grasses in the breeze) in some other way soothing to the senses. Or they must be beneficial to the body - either nutritious, medicinal, a source of tools or other building materials, etc. The best plants offer something from every category.

We get requests all the time at the Nursery: a drought-tolerant plant that flowers in full shade, is attractive to wildlife, tolerant of salt spray and poor drainage, dog-proof, kid-friendly, low-maintenance, and non-toxic. Credit the human race for trying - we just want things to be perfect. We want it all. We believe that dreams come true, that perfection is possible. We refuse to compromise.

I'm sure it is the same in every flavor of retail from auto sales to the grocery store - the frequent collision of dreams and reality. A 4-wheel drive car that seats 8, has excellent cargo capacity, gets 50 mpg, and parallel parks like the wheels are on sideways. A hairstyle that's easy to maintain, doesn't go out of style, and doesn't instantly look awful at the first whiff of breeze or kiss of humidity. A gas mower that starts on the first pull, every time, and doesn't pollute. An apple that doesn't bruise in shipment, stays fresh for days, and tastes like tropical punch. A national healthcare system that doesn't whimper piteously and shrivel at the first touch of light (excuse me, I seem to have digressed).

Let me get back to our quest. I confess I am a supremely lazy gardener. My idea of gardening is to wander aimlessly around, bacon martini in one hand, Felcos in the other, desultorily snipping at this and that, all the while convinced I'm 'pruning'. Where gardening is concerned, I firmly believe that the benefits ought to drastically outweigh the cost. I want the garden to be bountiful, beautiful, and above all, easy. With that in mind, I offer you the perfect plant - Taraxacum officinale. Never has the world seen the like. Allow me to enumerate the virtues of this miraculous creature.

  • First, its ease of growth: impossibly easy, tolerant of virtually any soil condition, patient with any kind of light, perfectly willing to go get its own water without interfering with the weary gardener's much-deserved cocktail hour.
  • Second, its benefit to the soul. T. officinale offers bright, unpretentiously cheerful flowers. It has been the source of numerous children's games since the first children discovered it back in the mists of history (including the making of wishes, which is an activity otherwise reserved for such decidedly un-humble subjects as stars and meteors).
  • Third, its numerous benefits to the body. The young greens of T. officinale make an excellent and nutritious salad (check out Amy Pennington's blog for a great post on harvesting and recipes). The stems contain a natural latex currently being examined for its potential to make non-petroleum-based tire rubber. It has been used throughout history to treat a broad spectrum of ailments. Taraxacum officinale may be utilized to produce four of the Five Noble Beverages: beer, wine, tea, and coffee (the fifth Noble Beverage, in case you are wondering, is bourbon).
  • And finally, its benefit to the rest of the garden. T. officinale grows a strong taproot, which helps break up compacted soil and bring nutrients to the surface, making it a good companion plant for more shallow-rooted garden dwellers. It is attractive to bees, butterflies, and birds.

Enough Latin! You cry. What is the common name for this marvel, so that I may immediately rush to my favorite garden center and buy cartsful of them? Oh, here again the plant shines. It has been graced throughout the centuries with countless names, some of them quite evocative, even poetic:  Blowball, Lion's Tooth, Priest's Crown, Swine's Snout. Or you might know it by the English derivation of its French name dent de lion – the dandelion.