Time and the dandelion

Dandelions are anything but boring 'weeds'. Our volunteer, David Merry, takes a look at the beauty and rich history surrounding this beautiful wildflower.

In the early springtime, we took our rationed once-daily walk through a meadow beside a wood. The ordinary was made extraordinary by countless fresh golden flowers glowing in the sunlight. These familiar little flowers, so common and yet unwanted by so many, made a compelling display. It’s our most troublesome of ‘weeds’ and common everywhere; the dandelion.

Dandelions are recorded on clay tables in ancient Egypt and China, as herbal remedies dating back to 1500BC.  It was a native plant of the holy land in Moses’ time, and was one of the bitter herbs consumed during Passover. 

The dandelions story began in Patagonia, 50 million years ago. A newly discovered fossil has shed new light on the complex evolutionary history of the ‘Asteraceae’ family of plants, which is made up of daisies, sunflowers and dandelions.

A ladybird sitting on the leaves of a dandelion

Ladybird on dandelion by Rachel Scopes

The early 17th century herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper, found it to be a ‘virtuous herb’, and when consumed in the spring you may “look a farther, you may see plainly without a pair of spectacles”. It was most often used for its cleansing quality to treat obstructions of the liver, gall bladder and spleen.

In folklore the dandelion got its nickname, the ‘shepherd’s clock’, because the flower opens after sunrise and closes at dusk.

What’s in a name; history gives us the cross-pollinated word dandelion. The name dates back to the Norman French ‘dents de lion’ or ‘teeth of the lion’.

The long leaves with their jagged edges on both sides resemble sharp teeth. The French also call the plant ‘pis-en-lit’. There are some delightful folk names for the plant: Irish daisy, blow ball, lions tooth, Priest crown, bitter wort, swine snort or canker wort, which sound like something from a Hogwarts text book. 

As kids we called it the piss plant, and we dared each other to touch it believing that if you did, you were cursed to wet the bed. In these long, hot summer days, the air seemed thick with the fluffy plumes of dandelion seeds, and there was always Dandelion and Burdock to quench your thirst.

A honeybee with pollen baskets flying towards a dandelion

John Hawkins - Surrey Hills Photographu

Poets have long drawn inspiration from this common spring flower. John Clare, a visionary of nature and Romantic poet, wrote an ode to this little flower in his poem, ‘The Rhapsody’:

Tis May; and yet the March flower Dandelion
Is still in bloom among the emerald grass,
Shining like guineas with the suns warm eye on--
We almost think they are gold as we pass,
Or fallen stars on a green sea of grass.

The American writer Walt Whitman, who at 79, partially paralysed after a stroke and facing death, looked back to a past spring to see:

Simple and fresh and fair from winter’s close emerging,
As if no artifice of fashion, business, politics, had ever been,
Forth from its sunny nook of shelter’d grass - innocent, golden,
        calm as the dawn
The spring’s first dandelion shows its trustful face.