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Last time after seeing what I’d written about dandelion seedheads, a friend drew my attention to the logo of the French encyclopaedia and dictionary, Le Petit Larousse. It features a young woman blowing the seeds from a dandelion ‘clock’ with the motto “Je seme a tout vent’ (I sow to all the winds) and I thought how the dispersal of these seeds is a beautiful metaphor for spreading knowledge The publication first appeared in 1905, and the logo has remained basically the same with the design changing only to reflect contemporary artistic styles.
This then brought us on to the derivation of the name, dandelion, and another French connection. It is a corruption of the French dent de lion, and so named because the jagged edges of the leaves were thought to resemble a lion’s teeth. But in France, she told me, the dandelion is commonly known as Pissenlit, which probably needs no translation! But this accords very well with what I was told as a child, which was “Don’t pick dandelions or you’ll wet the bed”. I understood that this belief resulted from the fact that the dandelion exudes a milky sap from the stem when it’s picked, although I’ve since discovered that it has been traditionally held to have diurectic properties if consumed. In fact every part of the plant is edible and rich in vitamins and minerals. The leaves and petals can be eaten raw or cooked and used to make infusions and wine, whist the root can be roasted and ground to make a coffee substitute. The latter was popular during World War II when coffee was scarce and rationed. I remember helping to make dandelion wine once, having been given strict instructions to carefully remove the petals from each flower head. I had to work my way through a whole bucketful of them as they were rapidly folding themselves up, as if to protect the precious petals from my unwelcome plunder!
Still, we’ve come to know this attractive, useful plant as one of that most maligned group we call ‘weeds’. It is far too successful for our liking with its superb ability to seed and its really deep taproot that makes it difficult to eradicate. But if we set aside our learned prejudices, and look at the dandelion with fresh eyes, we can perhaps see them as the poet John Clare did, as ‘fallen stars in a green sea of grass’ The flowers which are made up of around 200 individual florets are really quite stunning and when growing with others produce a blaze of golden colour, seldom matched. They are a really important source of nectar for a whole host of pollinators early in the year when few other plants are flowering. And the ethereal beauty of the seedhead with its promise of wish fulfilment to those who blow and scatter the seeds, has inspired poets, painters and designers. One famous example is the ubiquitous Sanderson Dandelion Clock range of fabrics and wallpaper.
The Dandelion even has its very own Appreciation Society. And in the Language of Flowers, the Dandelion stands for faithfulness and happiness, which is not a bad recommendation for a beautiful weed that changes ‘from suns into moons’ (Nabokov).