This week, parts of St. Petersburg--not the historical downtown where
there are few trees and little greenery of any kind--are covered with bright yellow flowers. Dandelions in Russia are considered a weed: if you are trying to grow a field of potatoes, dandelions are a nuisance. And yet in the city, even today when mowing lawns has become fashionable, nobody has the heart to mow the blooming dandelions. The Russian word for the flower, oduvanchik, originates from the verb "to blow," it means something that's being blown at or away--something very transitory--referring to the phase that comes after the blooming, when every gust of wind sends little white dandelion paratroopers afloat to establish new dandelion colonies out in the world. Dandelions are ubiquitous.
Yesterday, my friend Lyona, his wife Yulya, and I went to "TsPKO"-- "Central Park of Culture and Recreation" -- a largish park in the Northwest part of the city. Built in the 18th Century in the English style, the park is a system of canals and islands, with a very popular boating house where people can rent traditional wooden boats and row around. Booths selling ice cream abound; also games like darts--the goal is to hit several balloons; if you hit at least three balloons, you get a prize. Yulya did really well at this game, she was able to hit 4 or 5 balloons with 5 darts. I didn't hit any (despite considerable practice several years ago at a bar in the town of Sonoma). On a neighboring island, there are larger attractions--"American slides" -- roller coasters and other rides. My friends and I had ice cream and walked around. Somewhere in the park, there is an old palace that now houses some kind of a museum, but we didn't walk far enough. It was a beautiful warm day. Cheryomukha, "bird cherry," is also blooming. Cheryomukha is a medium sized tree that blooms with small, incredibly fragrant white flowers. I've been a little sick all week--my nose is stuffed--so I'm missing a large part of the spring experience. The dandelions, though, the dandelions--I feasted on the very sight of them.
Dandelions, I know, are a very useful plant. Wikipedia tells me that in China (where Dave is currently partying), it's considered a vegetable. Roasted dandelion roots can be used as coffee substitute. Young dandelion greens are very good in a salad. The yellow flowers themselves can be made into jam or wine (I'm remembering Ray Bradbury's story, "Dandelion Wine"). Honey made from dandelion flowers has a very potent taste and fragrance. In Russia, though, as I mentioned earlier, we mostly treated dandelions as a weed. At the beginning of every summer my grandmothers would concern themselves with making dandelion juice--for vitamins. We, the kids, collected the flowers and helped our grandmothers clean them and stuff them into the large glass jars with a bunch of sugar. In a day or two we were supposed to drink the sweet and slightly bitter mixture. I remember being thoroughly grossed out by it, but it wasn't the worst thing we were supposed to consume for our health as children. Something about the experience was oddly pleasant. It was like drinking the concentrated taste of summer itself.
The main reason my brother and I loved dandelions was because we could make striking gold crowns out of them. My grandmother taught me to weave dandelions into garlands--the stems of freshly picked dandelions are perfect for weaving: they are supple yet bendable. The stems are also full of sap, white when it first leaks out and gray-green when it dries on your hands, on your dress, on your face. It's almost impossible to make a garland or a crown without getting your clothes, your arms and legs and face completely smeared in dandelion sap. To make a thick wreath, we used two or three flowers at once; and the trick was to work fast and to try not to damage the flower. The yellow flowers are very fragile, they remain full and fluffy for only a few hours after picking, and if you're rough in handling them, they wilt immediately.
This is what the summer is like at its best: barefoot in a dandelion patch with a dandelion crown on my head, a dandelion garland around my neck, another dandelion crown I'm making for my brother.