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From the editor.

An explosion of pollen sent us to the hospital one May morning. A seemingly extraordinarily long winter ended suddenly with 80-degree temperatures and soaking showers! Spring flowers responded immediately, enthusiastically casting pollen into the air, covering porches and cars in a fine yellow dust. Heaven for those awaiting spring. Hell for those suffering from allergies and asthma.

Many years ago, my wife's difficulties were with all those cherry blossoms, azaleas, and other warm weather exotics in Washington, DC. "Up North," we wait for winter's end as crocuses and daffodils, more often than not, poke up through snow.

That morning the fruit trees, suddenly in bloom, were quite a sight, but the small flowers of oaks and maples especially caught my attention. "Tree flowers?" You remember the acorns you used in fights as a kid, and maple seeds you'd break in half, peel open, and stick to your nose--the fruits of these small flowers. Millions of blossoms softened the once bare trees on distant hills. Poor Nancy, her eyes almost swollen shut, could not appreciate the view.

Flowers of my childhood in the mid-Hudson Valley included forsythia, its golden flowers bursting forth before its new leaves opened. It grew like a weed in our yard, generating a new bush wherever a weeping branch touched the ground. Shadblow, or serviceberry, another early bloomer, was said to mark "the shad run"--the migratory fish swimming up the Hudson to spawn. I often picked daisies, buttercups, black-eyed Susans, and other wildflowers for bouquets for my mother.

An elderly neighbor gave my dad a variety of young lilac plants with blossoms of purple, white, and a deep French blue, that grew to become a hedge alongside the yard. What a sweet, heavenly scent! The still young lilac bushes offered only few blossoms, though, so we kids had to find others to make bouquets for Mother's Day. After Sunday School, we'd walk the mile home from church, crossing neighbors' yards of the village. About halfway, we'd pass through an archway of a tremendous lilac hedge, so loaded with purple and white blossoms that the branches almost touched the ground. Tolerant neighbors smiled from behind their curtains, as we broke off armloads of scented blooms to proudly carry home, where we filled large vases for our grand bouquets.

These days, vases of lilacs are not good for my wife's allergies. We find common interest in another flower of early May. Just when yards and fields begin to green, in some places vast swaths of gold overtake the green. The dandelions have bloomed! Opening for only a week or so, this humble flower provides for our springtime ritual--dandelion wine-making.

Nancy's dad made dandelion wine north of Syracuse years ago, and when we first moved back to the upper Hudson Valley, a neighbor served us some at a dinner party. A local wine-making store sponsors an annual contest. Still, it's not a common activity.

Farm fields with acres of flowers are the best picking. Early in my wine-making career, I received permission to pick flowers from the matriarch of a farm. While I was filling my bucket, her angry son confronted me, a perceived trespasser: "Just what do you think you're doing?" I humbly replied, "Picking dandelions, sir." We became fast friends, though he refused my offer of a bottle of the future product. Now each spring Nancy and I receive hearty waves and smiles from passing vehicles.

Patience is necessary. Some say to gather the entire yellow blossom head; others say use only the yellow petals pulled out of the green calyx. I cut most of the green base away as I pick, agreeing with some that a bit of green adds to the final product. It also fills the bucket faster. Sliced oranges, lemons, and fresh ginger go into the dandelion flower tea that steeps for five days, covered with a cloth to keep bugs out. My daughter laughs at childhood memories of Dad's stinky concoctions in buckets in the kitchen. Nowadays, she and her college friends enjoy the wine.

The dandelion tea is then strained, the liquid boiled with 10-15 pounds of sugar, depending on whether dry or sweeter wine is desired. When cooled, yeast is added to start the conversion of much of the sugar to alcohol. For one of my first batches, I used Euell Gibbons' recipe in Stalking the Wild Asparagus that called for cake yeast spread on toast to be floated on the tea. Now I use champagne yeast, but not the additives some winemakers use to kill wild yeast, stabilize the wine, and hurry the process. The golden liquid is then siphoned into a 5-gallon glass carboy with an airlock for an oxygen-free environment that allows the fermentation gases to escape.

More patience. Leave it alone in the cool dark of my stone cellar. Transfer to another carboy to help clarify the wine. Transfer again into cleaned, recycled wine bottles. Seal with new corks. By fall, this cottage wine is drinkable, but far better if aged longer, even a few years.

An hour of driving, another hour or so in the ER that May morning. The swelling subsided. Heart rate was normal. The pollen count this spring was off the charts, the doctor agreed. All too soon the snow will return, and a glass of dandelion wine by the fire will remind us that spring will also come again. We hope that perhaps the flowers will bloom with less exuberance next year. Meanwhile, let's have another glass of dandelion wine.

Todd DeGarmo

Voices Acquisitions Editor

Founding Director of the Folklife Center at Crandall Public Library
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Author:DeGarmo, Todd
Publication:Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Mar 22, 2015
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