April …with dandelions

Plenty of dandelions around this April, which set me thinking about this  plant, regarded as a weed, hated if you’re a gardener (those damned taproots) and, in urban areas at least, an indication of  unkemptness. Yet subconciously we  recognise the dandelion as a welcome sign of spring, and associate it with childhood memories (blowing on the seed heads to tell the time of day, making dandelion chains). And I remember the wagon that came round every summer delivering dandelion and burdock in great stone jars.

The English name dandelion is a corruption of the French dent de lion meaning “lion’s tooth”, referring to the coarsely-toothed leaves.In modern French the plant is named pissenlit, which means “urinate in bed”, apparently referring to its diuretic properties. In Chaucer’s time the English called it ‘pissabed’ for the same reason.

I came across a book all about the dandelion: The Teeth of the Lion: The Story of the Beloved and Despised Dandelion by Anita Sanchez.  In it she outlines many of the bene-fits of this plant. It is packed with vitamins and minerals, full of antioxidants, and is great at breaking up poor soil and extracting nutrients from difficult soil. Ecologically, it is an important plant in the recovery of damaged systems, and can serve as a marker for the health of an ecosystem. Dandelions also provide nectar to bees, butterflies, and birds at times when other flowers are not blooming.

Within the context of the debate over whether dandelions are good or bad – whether they are fondly appreciated memories of childhood, pretty yellow flowers, or stubbornly wicked weeds – Sanchez confronts the widespread use of great volumes of herbicides on those recently adopted elements of the cultural landscape known as ‘lawns’. Perhaps no other plant is the target of such a barrage of deadly chemicals, but the herbicides not only fail to eliminate dandelions but also poison birds and other parts of the ecosystem.

Andy Goldsworthy is an artist who has utilised dandelions  on many occasions in his work; these were created at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, April-May 1987:

Not surprisingly, John Clare wrote about the dandelion:

Tis May; and yet the March flower Dandelion
Is still in bloom among the emerald grass,
Shining like guineas with the sun’s warm eye on–
We almost think they are gold as we pass,
Or fallen stars in a green sea of grass.
They shine in fields, or waste grounds near the town.
They closed like painter’s brush when even was.
At length they turn to nothing else but down,
While the rude winds blow off each shadowy crown.

Emily Dickinson’s The Dandelion’s Pallid Tube has similair reflections:

The Dandelion’s pallid tube
Astonishes the Grass,
And Winter instantly becomes
An infinite Alas —

The tube uplifts a signal Bud
And then a shouting Flower, —
The Proclamation of the Suns
That sepulture is o’er.

Looking back on this April, today’s Country Diary in The Guardian sums it up:

April saved the best till last: fine days full of the arrival songs of chiffchaff, blackcap, redstart and garden warblers; orchard blossom, wood anemone and stitchwort; high blue skies zipping with swallows. This has been one of the most beautiful months in a long time and spring is timely this year.

After the winter, spring emerged within the traditional timings of events such as migrant bird arrivals, frogspawn and leaf opening, unlike many previous years when it all went askew. Is this a return to a seasonal rhythm we thought had been lost, or an aberrancy? Time will tell. But for now, the old rhyme about tree leaf opening as an omen of the summer’s weather seems pertinent because it’s raining.

The oak leaves are out before the ash, which means we’re going to have a splash instead of a soak. Heavy rain has certainly been the soaking norm for the last couple of years, when the ash has leafed out before the oak. This year it’s the other way around, so the omens are for good weather.

If the leaves are loaded with omen, there are other auguries and symbols opening within spring wildflowers. As the bluebells and wild garlic flower in the woods, there seems a greater feeling this spring of what the German artists called Stimmung – a perhaps untranslatable word meaning something like sentiment, mood, emotive state which is a tuning of the soul to Nature.

Although many will feel this with birdsong and bluebells, I think it is strongest in more subtle appearances: the pale parasitic toothwort flowers and the deeply exotic early purple orchid. The rain has brought a quickening zing to the end of April as spring careers over hills and woods towards May Day.

Mary Newcomb: Dandelion Lands


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