Whether carpeting verges in a blaze of golden yellow or inviting us to puff its globular seed heads into the breeze, the humble dandelion is indomitable and ubiquitous, says Vicky Liddell.
As the daffodils fade, their golden crown is passed to another bloom that bursts through cracks in pavements and luxuriates on lawns. The dazzling yellow mop heads of dandelions might not always be welcome, but their cheery loveliness cannot be denied.
With a name derived from the French dent de lion, after their jagged-toothed foliage, the taxonomy of Taraxacum officinale (agg) is far from simple. Although easily identified as a genus, there are at least 250 recorded species, each with minute differentiations that can confound the most dedicated taraxacologist.
This vast population divides into nine groups, including dandelions with spotty leaves (Naevosa), which tend to grow in the North; small ones, such as the ruddy dandelion in the Erythrosperma group, with deeply dissected leaves and tiny flowerheads; and Hamata, with their hook-shaped leaf lobes, which mostly grow on waste ground.
Some, such as Bertha’s dandelion, are so rare that they have been red-listed. Most will grow anywhere, but their absolute favourite place is a road verge next to roaring traffic — this accounts for at least 30 species.
Dandelions are ancient plants, which first appeared 30 million years ago in Eurasia. All but one species of dandelion are apomictic and able to reproduce asexually: the current population is thought to be the result of hybridisation between an apomictic pollen bearer and a sexual ancestor. As with other Asteraceae plants, each flowerhead is made up of individual flowers known as florets, all with their own pollen and nectar.
Each plant produces up to 20,000 seeds that will flower and seed in the same year. As sunflowers do, dandelions track the sun, opening an hour after sunrise and closing at dusk.
Indomitable and ubiquitous, the dandelion has, unsurprisingly, loomed large in folklore. It has hundreds of colourful local names — mostly connected to clocks, its milky sap and even bed-wetting, as a result of its leaves’ diuretic effect — such as witch gowan, devil’s milk plant, pissabed, golden suns, shepherd’s clock and pissenlit in France, where it frequently appears on menus.
Woven into a wedding bouquet, dandelions are supposed to bring luck to a newly married couple and dreaming of dandelions can indicate troubled times ahead. On Dartmoor, if dandelions are picked on Midsummer’s Eve and kept in a house or byre, they are believed to protect both people and animals from witchcraft.
Children have used the clocks as time-telling devices for centuries; but, when fluffy and feathery, they also make reliable barometers. Seeds need dry days to be borne by the wind and, when it is cloudy, the seed heads snap shut like umbrellas.
Taraxacum comes from the Greek taraxos (meaning disorder) and akos (a remedy), so it makes sense that dandelions were once used medicinally to treat obstructions of the liver, gall bladder and spleen. The milky sap was also deployed as a treatment for warts and a dandelion-leaf tea to encourage psychic ability.
The 17th-century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper found it to be a ‘virtuous herb’, saying that, if it was consumed in spring, we might ‘see plainly without a pair of spectacles’.
Victorian aristocracy loved dandelions, too, and cultivated them in special gardens, where they were used for salad leaves during the winter and as sandwich fillers, with the added benefit of helping to prevent gout.
In the 19th century, dandelions symbolised innocence and the flower frequently dotted the landscape of children’s picture books. Paintings of young women puffing on gossamer balls proliferated and, in 1900, Claude Monet perfectly captured the ethereal nature of the seed clock in his painting Dandelions.
Poets have long been inspired by the flowers. In Cymbeline, Shakespeare penned his famous couplet: ‘Golden lads and girls all must,/As chimney-sweepers,/come to dust’. (Golden lads was Warwickshire vernacular for dandelions.) John Clare wrote about them in A Rhapsody: ‘Shining like guineas with the sun’s warm eye on./We almost think they are gold as we pass.’
Taraxacum species are vitally important as they provide a near-continuous supply of nectar and pollen for a host of pollinators. With their earthy scent and hollow, milky stems, dandelions are an integral part of the landscape of our childhoods and are often the first plant we learn to name. Indeed, a field of dandelions is a potent symbol of the transience of life, not least because it contains every stage, from the flamboyant flowers to the snowy-headed clocks.
Six more facts about dandelions
- Herbal remedies made from dandelions have been discovered on clay tablets in ancient Egypt and Greece.
- On undisturbed sites, dandelion plants can survive 10–13 years.
- They are thought to be getting taller, toothier and stronger due to increased rainfall and nitrates from traffic.
- In the Second World War, roots were ground to make a coffee substitute.
- Dandelion-visiting bees produce brilliant canary-yellow honeycomb.
- Eaten raw or cooked, the leaves are highly nutritious, thanks to the iron, magnesium, calcium, vitamins A and C and large amounts of potassium they contain.
The authors of The Little Book of Wild Flowers, Caz Buckingham and Andrea Pinnington, choose their favourite five.