30 March 2024

The Dandelion - Whimsical World-Wide Weed

The humble dandelion. From your garden to almost the ends of the earth this small but conspicuous plant flourishes. Gardeners do not appreciate its presence, considering it a weed, even though its flowering usually indicates the beginning of the honey bee season and could be seen as a welcome sign. Its simplistic looking structure hides a few surprising secrets and its cultural resonance, especially in Europe is strong. Here is a short but sincere homage to one of the small wonders of our botanical world.

Let’s start with the names, both common and scientific. In English, dandelion is a corruption of the French. Originally it was called ‘dent de lion’ and the name came over in 1066 with a certain William and his Conquerors. It means ‘lion’s tooth’ and many people mistakenly believe it refers to the orange colored flower head, confusing the words beard and tooth.

In fact it is so called because of its leaves, which have a coarse-toothed edge and as such reminded the medieval mind of the teeth of lions. This name is prevalent in other European countries, such as Italy, Portugal, Spain, and up to the cold north of the continent in Norway.

Slightly less flattering is alternative name, again French. Our Gallic friends in their usually honestly robust manner call the plant the ‘pissenlit’ which mean to ‘urinate in bed’. This is because it is considered a diuretic, which is something that elevates the expulsion of urine from the body. In Chaucer’s time many of the English would also call it ‘pissabed’ for the same reason.

It is somewhat indicative of our somewhat schizophrenic attitude towards the plant that the North-Eastern Italians refer to is as ‘pisacan’ – which refers to dogs, pavements and urine! However, go a little to the north and it is known delightfully as ‘soffione’. While some in Italy think of it as a plant that a dog may relieve itself upon a short way away the name can be translated to ‘blowing’.

This is an obvious reference to the intense pleasure that can be gained from blowing away the seed from the stalks. So, the dandelion has it etymological roots embedded in to its dualistic reputation: a nuisance which gives pleasure.

The Germans and Poles, two nations not altogether noted for overt linguistic romanticism have names which mean approximately the same, in fact the German, ‘Pusteblume’ has a lovely ring to it, with a slightly onomatopoeic edge: one can almost imagine someone blowing the seeds away with relish with that strong ‘P’ sound at the beginning of the word .

Perhaps the Polish do it best, separating the stages of the plant’s life by giving it two separate names. While it is in its flower state, then in Polish it is called a ‘mlecz’. This is a word that comes from ‘milk’ and is due to the milky sap that generously spills on to the finger when the stem is snapped. Later, when it has produced seeds, then it is known as ‘dmuchawiec’ – again, another reference to the blowing away of the seeds.

The Finnish people call it the ‘butter flower’ which could refer to its golden color when in bloom or perhaps to its prevalence in meadows where milking cows are kept. The Norwegians call it the worm rose, which sums up the dual attitude humanity has towards the plant. At the same time its simple but pleasing appearance gets a reference, so does its lowly status. It may be a ‘rose’ – but only for the worms!

Its genus is Taraxacum and it is a large one! The two species that are most widely recognized throughout the world are the ones we think of as weeds. These are T. erythospermum and T. officiale. They have incredibly small flowers and the head around which they gather is known as a floret. The first little secret of the dandelion is most of them are clones! In other words, they reproduce asexually. The process is known as apomixis. The seed arises ultimately from an egg which was never fertilized. In this way the next generation of dandelions is always genetically identical to its single parent.

The reason for this is that a lot of dandelion species are triploid, genetically speaking. What this means is that they have an odd number of chromosomes instead of an even one – a triploid condition normally means the plant will be sterile. However, thanks to apomixis the triploid dandelions get to pass their genes on. These triploids are mostly found in the northern parts of the world where the species are found.

The diploids, which reproduce by pollination, are mostly found in the southern areas of Asia and Europe. Scientists argue a lot about dandelions and the reasons for this north-south spread of triploids and diploids is still being debated. The likelihood though is that the triploids may have changed their reproductive habits during the last ice age where pollination was not as easy as it had once been.

What separates the dandelion from other ‘weeds’ however, is its method of seed dispersal and it is this which brought it to the attention of our ancestors as a source of fun. A girl who has not used a dandelion ‘clock’ to estimate the time is a girl who has missed an essential childhood pleasure.

Likewise a boy who has never kicked the head of a dandelion to watch the seeds fly away is a boy who needs to get out of the house more! In our age of equality, however, it is advisable that parents encourage their offspring to do both, so as to achieve a broader education of what makes the natural world.

When a seed lands on the ground, it forms a taproot. This taproot then produces leaves. With the dandelion they appear in the form of a rosette of leaves above the root. Another of the secrets of the dandelion is that each rosette can produce several stems (which will eventually flower) at the same time. So, in fact, a dandelion seed can produce many identical copies of itself at a single flowering.

The single seeds that the plant eventually produces in its beautiful clock sphere are known as achenes. Each achene has atop of it the pappus – effectively its ‘wings’ for flight but in reality fine hairs. When blown by the wind – dispersal can be widespread. No wonder keen gardeners scold small children for their insistence on spreading the seeds with gleeful (often somewhat demonic) abandon.

Just in case you are asked by an inquisitive child – yes, the stalk between achene (seed) and pappus (parachute) has a name too. It is known as a beak and breaks off from the achene with ease, so enabling the seed to germinate. The residual fluff of the parachutes, which can cover an area visibly, is sometimes known as dandelion snow.

So, there you have it – the simple dandelion. Rather more complex than at first sight and something which deserves a second look!

First Image Credit Flickr User Excstaticist