Bottle of Summer


Thinking of summer and this post written originally in 2007 came to mind.  Enjoy!

It is an early morning in mid July during the year 1964.  I am sitting on our family lawn with my back against a large white birch tree. I am just finishing the greatest book that I have ever read, and I must admit I am sad that this book has to come to an end.  For the first time I have experienced a great writer.  For the first time I have been truly moved by the written word.

The book was Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury.  It was the story of a young boy’s summer in Illinois in the late 1920s.  The book spoke out loud to me in so many different ways.  I could identify with the story of a rural family.  I could identify with a less complicated era.  And although my life seemed a whole lot more chaotic than that of the main character in the story I took great pleasure in identifying with his day to day adventures. Much of the main theme of the book is woven around the first harvest of dandelions for his grandfather’s immortal dandelion wine.   The metaphors employed by Ray Bradbury in this book all rang true with my 12-yea-old heart and mind.  It would be years before I would be able to appreciate the metaphorical dandelion wine.

About ten years later I find myself walking in an apple orchard in mid May.  A yellow sea of dandelions and a bright blue sky washes the landscape before me.  In the middle of this picture there is an older gentleman, wearing blue jeans, bright red suspenders, and a blue, short sleeved shirt.  He is bent over and the woven wooden basket hanging from a broad leather strap around his neck is swinging to and fro in front of his slightly oversize belly.  He has a pair of barber scissors in his left hand, and his right hand is busy picking dandelion flower heads.  I can see from a distance that he neatly trims each flower head before he drops it into the basket.  He literally whistles while he works, and he is smiling from ear to ear.

Since the day I finished the Bradbury book Dandelion Wine I have been unconsciously seeking this person.  He is exactly the right person to complete a chapter in a book that I am constantly writing in my mind.  On many nights, fast asleep in the comfort of my bed, I have dreamed about this person and now he is standing right before my eyes.

I walk across the orchard to be near this gentle man.   Without lifting his head, and barely missing a beat of his picking and clipping process, he extends his hand and says “My name is Melvin, and it is a glorious day.”

“Picking dandelions for wine?” I inquire.

“Why yes,” he replies,  “would you care to join me?”

For the next two hours we pick dandelions side by side.  Melvin trims the stem and green material off the bottom of each flower head with his barber shears, and I, mimicking his actions, trim mine with a small pair of scissors attached to my Swiss Army knife. During the time we spend picking dandelions together Melvin carefully explains the wine making process to me.  Later that day he would boil the flower heads in equal parts of water.  After cooling he would add sugar, yeast, a quantity of oranges, and a little ginger.  He would let that cook for a while, and then he would siphon off the clear liquid into a five-gallon glass jug and put an air lock on the bottle.  A few weeks later he would siphon off the clear liquid again and transfer this to another five-gallon glass jug and reemploy the air lock.  Then a couple more weeks after that he would transfer the liquid into quart bottles where it would rest for six to twelve months before it was opened.  The wine that was 12 months old would be much better, he explained, but he could never resist opening up a bottle on the first really cold night in front of his fieldstone fireplace with the fire roaring and lighting the room.

I helped Melvin “cook” the dandelions that night.  We shared a bottle of last year’s wine, and, I must admit, I was surprised at the wine’s delicate taste.  Neither sweet nor tart, the wine was simply smooth and summer-like. That night Melvin made me an offer.  “Come by on the first night that it gets below zero and we’ll share a bottle of this year’s wine.

One might say that it is  ironic Americans spend so much time trying to rid the earth of dandelions.  Hundreds of tons of broadleaf herbicides have been utilized, and thousands of hours of time have been spent by man in ridding his “perfect” lawn of this plant.  Considered a noxious weed by many, the bitter irony is that the early European settlers brought this plant with them across the ocean to the New World because it was highly prized as an herb used in medical remedies, a green used in salads, and a flower used to decorate the family garden.

It is interesting to note that while many historical botanists think that the dandelion was brought to the New World by European settlers, and is, therefore, an alien plant, there is much evidence of the plant in native American lore, legends, and herbal remedies.  It is likely that this plant is (and has been for a very long time ) circumpolar.

The dandelion is best known for its bright yellow flower head, which is, in reality, a cluster of flowers each yielding, upon maturity, a seed attached to a parachute-like seed dispersal unit.  Strong winds can blow these seeds for miles and miles spreading an individual plant’s genetic resources for very long distances.

The dandelion plant has at its base a rosette of leaves.  Each leaf is deeply toothed.  In fact, the name dandelion comes from the French description of the plant leaf, dent de lion, (lion’s tooth).  Each leaf is “V” shaped in cross section.  The plant leaf collects water and drains the water through the “V” channel like a gutter on the eaves of a house.  The rosette of leaves all channel water toward the center of the plant where a large tap root holds the plant in the soil.  Few other plants enjoy this ready made, efficient watering system. The taproot can extend up to a foot into the soil.  This provides an anchor for this perennial plant that assures the plant will be around from year to year.  The large ta root helps the plant to survive drought, flood, fire, and wind.  Surely this plant has evolved to outlast us all.

Dandelions can take over large areas of landscape.  When in bloom the yellow ocean of flowers dominates the landscape like few other flowers.  Summer snow storms of dandelion seeds can be found cluttering the air on the first windy days of late May and early June.

When used as food, the green leaf can be used in salads, cooked as “greens”, and supplies the body with beta carotene, Vitamins B1, B2, B5. B6, B12, C, E,(P), D, as well as biotin, inositol, potassium, phosphorous, magnesium, and zinc.  The taproot can be dried and ground and used as a reasonable substitute for coffee.  Tonics made from dandelions are said to good for the liver (relieving the liver of jaundice), gallbladder (especially for removing gallstones), and indigestion.  The milky sap found in the stem is used by herbal practitioners for the removal of warts, moles, calluses, and sores.
Generations and generations of cultural use of this plant by early Europeans and Native Americans seems to confirm the value of this plant in both medicinal and culinary applications. There is little question that this miraculous plant is here to stay despite all of our efforts to get rid of i

Some months later, just a few days after Christmas the mercury dips to -4 degrees.  I remember my invitation and find my way to Melvin’s cabin.  I knock on the door and Melvin answers wearing a blue flannel shirt, with red suspenders holding up green wool pants. He is also wearing the same smile that he wore the day we were picking dandelions last May.  The smile still begins at one ear and ends on the opposite side of his face at the other ear.

“I was wonderin’ if you’d show up tonight,” Melvin said. “Bringing in the winter with a remembrance of the summer ain’t a bad thing to do on a cold night.”

Melvin and I chat a little bit in front of the blazing fire in the fieldstone fireplace.  We talk about the weather, the recent apple season, and the new winter.  After a short while, Melvin goes to the pantry and pulls a bottle of this years dandelion wine off of the slanted handmade rack made from stout apple tree branches.  He twists the corkscrew into the cork, and while pulling the cork out of the bottle he paraphrases Ray Bradbury.

“Like openin’ a bottle of summer,” he says.

“Yes, Melvin,” I reply, “like openin’ a bottle of summer!”

Melvin pours the nearly clear wine into two glasses. We raise our glasses and toast the first cold winter night by touching our glasses together and taking a sip of the wine.  Melvin looks at me, and I look at him, and together I know we are both back in an orchard during the month of May surrounded by bright yellow dandelions and a clear blue sky.

Originally written in September of 2007 for the Heath Herald.

  • Teresaevangeline

    My first taste of alcohol was dandelion wine that my Uncle Allen had made. It came to mind last summer in the middle of dandelion season, along with the Bradbury book I had read so long ago,  and so I posted on my remembrance of that summer and the death of my uncle while trout fishing on a river in Idaho. That homemade wine sure carries some memories.

    Thanks for posting on the fine qualities of this often maligned plant. Too much time and money has been spent getting rid of it, not to mention the damage done by those who choose chemicals to do so.

    Very nicely written, Bill. Love all the colors you describe here, as well as that cold night your dandelion picking compadre shared it with you.

    My son made wine from my grapes this year. I had some on the winter solstice and then again at the turning of the New Year. Delicious! We’re already looking forward to next year’s crop.  I have been thinking of doing something with the dandelions, also. Yes, summer in a bottle.

  • Wild_Bill

    Dandelion wine, opened on a frigid winter evening, really is a bottle of summer.  And yes, this oft maligned plant, is truly valuable to both humans and wildlife.  It is a delicious green (early in the season). a wonderful drink (some people use it as a coffee substitute but my wife tells me there is no substitute for coffee), and dandelions are used in folk medicine for a variety of ailments. 

    I love home made grape wine.  Sounds delicious Teresa.

  • Barbara

    A marvelous story on all counts Bill – brings the smells, tastes and sounds of summer back t savour again. And of course I agree about dandelions. I have friends who dig this wonderful prolific plant up with religious zeal to maintain a completely green canvass around their homes. What a waste of time and effort, in my opinion anyway. But there are people who believe that it’s humans’ responsibility to control everything in the world… how sad for them, since life itself is uncontrollable and only lived – well, hopefully.

    I’ve wondered about how this wine was made. Perhaps I’ll try it this year and I have used young leaves for salads – a bit bitter when old, but using the stalks’ “milk” as a healing substance? So clever. Love learning all these tidbits you pass along to us Bill, in the guise of a beautiful story. Thank you.

  • shoreacres

    I can’t believe I’ve never read Bradbury’s book. I’m sure I’ve heard of it, but I can’t even say that for sure. What I do know is that you’ve done a fine job of celebrating the plant and evoking summer. We Iowans had dandelion wine, too, but as children we used it more for weaving wreaths for our hair and putting the blossom under each other’s chins to see if we “liked butter”.

    I came to appreciate the plant in a new way during the years I spent with a pet squirrel. He loved dandelions, and since we tried to feed him as closely to the natural cycle of things as possible, springtime was my season to go out and gather dandelions for him. He loved the leaves, but the blossoms made him purr like a cat.

    Dandelions, as it turns out, also do a good job of curing a mean drunk of a squirrel! I wrote a little about that here.

    I do wish people would stop with the herbicides and such. A nice green lawn really doesn’t require anything more than a dandelion digger and a few minutes’ work now and then. I love seeing the flowers, myself. They’re blooming here already – as bright as Melvin’s smile!

  • Wild_Bill

     You always have such nice things to say about my writing.  Do you know that this is really, really appreciated by me!  You and other readers keep me writing, and for that I thank all of you.

    Dandelions are amazing plants.  Many uses, of which one is a delicious, and very dry, wine.  There are lots of different recipes.  Try a few and decide which you like best if you make wine next summer.

    And yes.  Why people have this strange vision of what looks perfect in their world is way beyond anything I can conceive or imagine.

  • Wild_Bill

     It is a wonderful, wonderful book.  I’d be surprised if your library did not have a copy of it .  I highly recommend reading it.  It is simply wonderful.

    It seems we all have terrific memories of this plant.  One of my favorite childhood memories of dandelions is blowing the parachute like seeds off of the flower head when they are ripe.  Or just being in a field and being consumed by dandelion seeds as a northwest wind blows through it. 

    And squirrels eating dandelions?  Wow, now that I did not know, but it makes sense given groundhogs love them and they are in the squirrel family.  Thanks for this info!

  • Montucky

    This is a great story, Bill! A wonderful way to celebrate the first really cold night of winter! One of the advantages of living in the country is that I can enjoy the dandelions growing in my yad without any feeling of guilt.

  • Wild_Bill

     There should be no guilt in enjoying any wildflower.  A true gift from mother earth to us.  And this one, the dandelion, is particularly useful for food, herbal medicine, and wine!

  • Wild_Bill

     There should be no guilt in enjoying any wildflower.  A true gift from mother earth to us.  And this one, the dandelion, is particularly useful for food, herbal medicine, and wine!

  • Barbara

    OOOOOHHHH had to comment again – the memories from Shoreacres about dandelion wreaths and seeing if we liked butter, and yes the drift of dandelion seeds with their miniature parachutes floating from the heads after a strong blow – all fabulous memories… thanks to all your readers who comment – I learn from them as well as you Bill… what a super post evoking such great memories of summer, much needed on another grey chilly day that looks like rain instead of snow again… and about your writing my friend? You have an exceptional ability to draw your readers into your world and take them with you. It’s quite a gift.

  • Al

    I love this story – sometimes I wish I lived in a cabin, far from all the stress of my current life.

  • Wild_Bill

    Thanks Al, life in a cabin is good.  But only if you leave all the stress of modern life behind.  Hard to avoid these days.

  • Wild_Bill

    You can comment all you want Barbara!  I really like the exchanges we get in the comments section of my blog.  I learn a lot too. 

    Dandelion parachutes blowing across the landscape on a windy June day, what a site to see!

  • Emily

    If you can believe it, I’ve never read Dandelion Wine. I sure want to now! This account makes me absolutely ache summer. I think dandelions are a part of some of my earliest memories… Thanks for the science AND the story, Bill!

  • Wild_Bill

     You are in for a real treat.  This is an American classic!  Beautifully written.  Poignant as well.  I’m sure many libraries have a copy.  Read it soon, you won’t regret it.  Let me know what you think!

  • Ratty

    Ray Bradbury was one of my grandpa’s favorite writers. I got my taste in books from him. Your story should be read by everyone, especially those who hate dandelions in their lawns. I remember when I was a kid all of those people who were desperate to get rid if them. I only learned the benefits of dandelions a year or two ago. 

  • Wild_Bill

     Although most people know Ray Bradbury for his great science fiction writing he wrote in many different styles.  Dandelion Wine is one of the great American writing classics.  A masterpiece.

  • Guy

    Hi Bill

    As Ray Bradbury is a favorite author I quite enjoyed your post. It also reminded me of a trip our family took to Waterton National Park a number of years ago. It was early spring and most of the tourist facilities had just opened. There was a small park in the town site and the lawns were yellow with Dandelions. To take advantage of this the Bighorn Sheep which were no strangers to the town were all resting among the yellow flowers. Your post also encouraged me to leaf through the novel again. and I found this quote which I posted to my blog. Thanks Guy
    ” The final words waited to be written. But he went instead to the window and pushed the screen frame out.  He unscrewed the top of the jar and tilted the fireflies in a pale shower of sparks down the windless night.
    They found their wings and flew away.”

  • Wild_Bill

    Wow, I remember this passage.  An amazing writer wasn’t he. 

    Please post a link to your blog on this page so that others can go to read it Guy. 

    And your experience in Waterton National Park sounds like it was amazing.

  • Guy

    Hi Bill

    Here is the link to my blog.

    Thanks for asking.

  • Jack Matthews

    Bill, you meet the most interesting and pivotal characters in nature of anyone I know.  I like your description of the dandelion in detail.  I have a cherished picture of my daughter holding a dandelion when she was three.  The linking of summer and dandelion wine is great.

  • Vagabonde

    I really liked this post.  I have been eating dandelion salad since I
    was a child.  I make it with hard boiled
    eggs.  I can eat it 5 days a week for
    dinner, and sometimes I do – no one else in my family likes it.  I have to buy the dandelion greens at Whole Food
    because there are too many chemicals on them in yards.  I’d love to try dandelion wine though, it
    sounds very tasty.

  • Wild_Bill

     I’d love to know exactly how you prepare your dandelion salad with hardboiled eggs.  You’ll probably live to 200 years old if you eat this 5 days a week.  Please share!

  • Wild_Bill

     I believe that nearly everyone who has close ties to nature is provocative and often pivotal.  Personal philosophy built on nature’s ancient recipes are contrary to modern thought yet open our hearts to what is possible and right.

  • Wild_Bill

     Very interesting blog Guy.  Thanks for sharing this!

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