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No, that title is not a cryptic clue for a crossword but instead refers to a very common and much-despised plant with a truly remarkable story. A plant that has found amazing ways of propagation and distribution.
The week before last I saw my first dandelion of this year in bloom in Dublin. On a cold, dark and wet day, it had its sunny bloom shining on a bit of waste ground. And not far from it, a coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) in bloom too, a relative in the same genus sometimes confused with the dandelion, also in bloom. But this is the story of the ubiquitous dandelion, which we knew as “Piss (or Wet) the Bed”, from a mistaken belief that keeping the blooms in one’s bedroom would make one void one’s bladder while sleeping.
We have two common species of dandelion in Ireland, T. vulgaris and T. officinalis, Caisearbhán and Caisearbhán Caol Dearg (?) respectively in Irish. They belong to the genus or larger family of Asteraceae, one of the two largest genera of the flower family, including so many species, from the diminutive daisy to the giant sunflower.
It is an important early source of pollen and nectar for insects in this latitude, when not many other blooms are about.
The name “dandelion” is a rendition of the pronunciation in French of “dents de lion”, i.e “lion’s teeth”, said to refer to the serration of the leaves reminding people of lion’s teeth. Well, perhaps of a cartoon or heraldic lion, or one as imagined by Europeans who had never seen the animal.
As the season progresses, soon those cheerful yellow blooms will be seen everywhere, on roadside verges and waste ground, in gardens and fields, in woodlands, on hillsides ….. Except in bogs and strangely in some parts of the Burren1, there is hardly a place where it cannot be found, which makes us see it as common and perhaps view it with disdain.
But it is far from being an everyday plant.
PUFF CLOCK AND PARACHUTE BABIES
As children, we thought to tell the time by blowing on the fluffy balls that develop from the bloom in late Summer or Autumn, each puff being an hour and the correct time being the number of puffs to blow the last seed parachute away. It seems unlikely such an impractical idea would have occurred to us and we only did so because we had been told about it by adults.
But there is some wonder in those fluffy balls, full of separate parachutes, each bearing one seed. This is possible because what I have been deliberately calling a “bloom” rather than a “flower” is, properly speaking, a capitulum, a head actually containing many, many little flowers, or florets – and each one of those will bear a seed. It is a wonderful arrangement capable of producing a multiplicity of seeds even if parts of the bloom are damaged.
Each floret grows a silky “parachute”, the plant not only using the wind for seed dispersal (as do grasses with pollen) but developing such a means of delivery to cover great distance.
Upon hitting disturbed ground or even a crevice with soil, the seed takes quickly – the dandelion’s children are great opportunists — and sends down a long taproot, while above ground, leaves grow in a rosette shape upon rosette, later sending out hollow stalks that will bear the bloom of florets. Each bloom “responds to changes in light, in fine weather stretching the florets to the sun and following its course across the sky, or closing the head up as soon as rain threatens, opening also for sunrise and closing at evening.”1 As the florets die, their bracts close and the seeds and parachutes develop inside; then their surrounding bracts drop, allowing the expansion of the full ball of silky parachutes – i.e the maximum possible number of seed-carriers.
When the seeds have gone with the wind, the hollow stem dries up and falls away. The tap-root regularly shrinks and pulls the rosette of leaves tight to the ground: maximum absorption of sun and moisture but also maximum possible cover on ground, making it difficult for other plants to compete close to it.
Unless I dreamed it, somewhere I came across a phrase and image that I considered very democratic but have not been able to find it since. I had thought it spoken by a Shakespearian character but no search has turned it up. As I recall it, a worker or person of “low” social status says that his blood is as good as any royal person’s, for “a king on the march scatters his seed like a dandelion”!
To the average flower or vegetable gardener, the dandelion is an invasive noxious weed, rapidly colonising newly-dug, hoed or even raked soil and competing with what it is desired to grow. And the fact that hoeing the leaves off even a couple of times will not kill the plant, the root sending out new shoots, makes it worse. Using a rotavator chops up the tap root but many of the resulting sections can regenerate and start a new plant.
All this is amazing enough, were it not for the plant’s sex life – or absence of it!
SEEDS WITHOUT SEX
Most flowers, blossoms and blooms exchange pollen, usually with the assistance of pollinators – generally insects and in particular, bees. This fertilises the plants and causes the production of seeds, whether in the form of fruit or nuts or just plain “seeds”. The shape and colour of the bloom attracts the pollinator, knowing that inside there is nectar and pollen to be eaten (or collected, in the case of bees).
Well, dandelion blooms contain nectar and are visited by many insects, including bees – but the plants don’t exchange pollen in order to produce seeds. They produce the seeds alright, as we have seen – but asexually. Without sex. So why produce blooms and nectar at all?
Each new plant is a copy of the parent but no breeding occurs. Another mystery: there are a huge number of different microspecies of dandelion, differing in sometimes minute ways from one another and living and seeding in the same general area (more than 70 in Co. Dublin alone3). ‘In the British Isles alone, 234 microspecies are recognised in nine loosely defined sections, of which 40 are “probably endemic.”4
Let’s imagine an ancestral dandelion plant – how did it come to produce all these micro-species, seeding true but each separate and without cross-breeding? Botanists don’t seem to know: ‘the humble dandelion is, indeed, as the new Webb’s An Irish Flora confirms, “a very difficult genus”, its flowers not always to be told apart, even in the hand. The American ecologist Paul Ehrlich once described the reproductive policy of dandelions as “perhaps the greatest mystery in the world of plant sex”.‘ 5
FOOD, DRINK, DYE …. AND RUBBER?
All over Europe and Asia the plant has been known for culinary and/ or medicinal qualities but rather than just quote hearsay and unverified publications, I prefer to pass over most of the detail of these alleged qualities as the subject requires more research than I am prepared to undertake at this time.
All of the dandelion plant is edible1, except perhaps the bloom-stem: root, leaves, buds and blooms. Which is probably how this native Eurasian plant came to colonise America (though North America does have its own native species too) – brought there as a culinary plant by European colonists. The green leaves are likely to be too bitter for many tastes unless blanched first – i.e covered to deny them sun for a week or so, when they will turn yellow and lose much of their bitterness but still remain crisp.
Dandelion wine has been made from the flowers (a gallon of flowers for a gallon of wine7, but some other ingredients must be added, as with all European plants with the exception of the grape or the gooseberry). A mildly-fermented drink, dandelion and burdock8, has also been made from a combination of the dandelion flowers and burdock roots.
The flowers have also been dried, then ground into a powder to make a light yellow dye but I lack information on its colourfastness.
The white sticky liquid (latex) in the stems and along the main rib of the larger leaves has been said to remove warts but having tried it myself without success I doubt this claim. Furthermore, I believe the remedy may be confused with a similar-looking white sap from a completely different plant, the petty spurge (also known as “milkweed” and other common names), Euphorbia peplus, which I have found efficacious. However, the white sap in the dandelion has been developed by selective cultivation in one species to replicate the latex of the rubber tree9 and dandelion rubber may one day become a familiar product.
Soon, this seemingly ubiquitous flower of many “cousins” and many uses, an opportunist colonist with thousands of daughters sailing the wind, will be brightening our ways everywhere. Once we know even some of its qualities, can we ever again look at the dandelion with disdain?
1In New Atlas of British Irish Flora, quoted by Michael Viney, “Pissey beds lion’s tooth” etc (see Sources, References)
2Ibid, also Taraxacum – ‘A very difficult genus of a multitude forms, which set seed without pollinating, and never, therefore, interbreed.’ An Irish Flora by D A Webb, Sc.D. 1977, quoted in Wildflowers of Ireland (References, Sources).
4 Stace, C.A, New Flora of the British Isles, quoted in Taxacum (References, Sources)
5Michael Viney, Irish Times (References, Sources)
6Taraxacum (Sources, References)
7Michael Viney, Irish Times (References, Sources)
8Not the commercially-produced and carbonated drink
9Taraxacum, ‘As a source of natural rubber’ (Sources, References)
Petty Spurge as cure for warts (and variety as cure for skin cancer): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euphorbia_peplus