Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, it is very hard to find a flowering weed in January, but two things are guaranteed. If I find an area of mown public grass, there will be at least a couple of daisies in it. And if I pay attention, I will find a dandelion in flower. This is a ‘weed’ so common that we all think we know exactly what it looks like, what with those toothed leaves (Dandelion is a corruption of ‘dents de lion’) and that starburst of yellow ‘petals’ (each one of which turns out to be a separate flower). Many of us will know that the leaves are edible, and that the name that the French give to the plant, Pissenlit, means ‘wet the bed’, a reference to its diuretic qualities: in fact, it was believed that even smelling a dandelion was enough to bring on a bout of incontinence. However, it turns out that what I knew about the dandelion was only a tiny part of the story of this extraordinary plant.
To start with, if we look up the plant ‘Dandelion’, we will find that although it is often known as Taraxacum officinalis, it is actually a complex of at least 230 microspecies which can only be told apart by experts. 40 of these microspecies are endemic to the UK, which means that they live here and nowhere else in the world. The reason for this is that Dandelions reproduce by something called apomixis – the seeds that are produced in those wonderful dandelion ‘clocks’ are often clones , which means that all the plants in a certain area will be identical, leading to the gradual production of very localised microspecies.In addition to the names mentioned above, the dandelion has some other very fine vernacular names. In Swedish, the plant is known as the worm rose because of the many little insects (thrips) that are often found in the flower head. In Italian, it has the name ‘pisacan (dog piss) because it is found at the side of the pavement, where we might expect canines to scent mark. Many names reflect the dandelion ‘clock’ and its use as a way of telling the time – Richard Mabey reports that the number of breaths needed to remove all the seeds told the hour – and so we have ‘Clockflower’, ‘Fairy Clock’, and ‘Peasant’s Clock’. The plant is also known as ‘Swine’s Snout’, though I am having a bit of trouble working out why this might be. ‘Monk’s Head’ is probably a cheeky reference to the bald seedhead once all the feathery seeds have left. Dandelion is seen as the scourge of lawn-lovers everywhere, and as a perennial with a deep tap-root there are all kinds of ways of eliminating it – some suggest pulling up the plant and putting a teaspoonful of salt into the hole. But as you might expect, I disagree – because of their year-round flowering, dandelions are an invaluable source of early season nectar and pollen for bees, and are the food plant of the pearl-bordered fritillary, one of our earliest emerging spring butterflies, and a beauty to boot. The leaves of dandelions have long been used in salads (and are enjoying a revival what with all these new restaurants that celebrate foraging). The root was used as a coffee substitute during the Second World War. But the Plant Lives website also mentions that the people of Minorca believe that they owe their survival to the dandelion after a plague of locusts ate their crops. It is believed that the many medicinal and culinary uses of the dandelion were first recorded in the medieval Middle East (the genus name Taraxacum comes from the Persian name for the plant), and one delicacy, Yublo cake, contains dandelion buds, rose petals and honey.
Dandelion is also said to be a good plant for growing in orchards: although some bees may prefer it to the flowering fruit trees, later in the year the plant produces large quantities of ethylene, which are said to encourage the fruit to ripen. Some 93 species of insect have been recorded as visiting dandelions, so this is a very fine bank of possible pollinators for the farmer. No wonder dandelions are often encouraged in these situations, and they have extraordinary beauty when seen en masse, as here in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery in East Finchley.
The humble dandelion has even attracted the attention of artists. Here, for example, is a watercolour painting by Albrecht Durer, a most realistic depiction called ‘A Great Piece of Turf’, created in 1503. I love the way that the ‘weeds’ are so lovingly and accurately depicted, as if they needed no adornment or improvement to make them a worthy object of study. And, of course, he was right. Any living thing, regarded with sufficient attention, becomes miraculous.
Photo One – By John Liu [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Two – By Sheila Sund from Salem, United States (Dandelion center) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Three – I, Michael Kranewitter [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Four – By Albrecht Dürer – NgELdACk3I8Jkg at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum, Public Domain, $3
All other photographs copyright Vivienne Palmer