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Do You Know This Flower?

Of course you do. It’s a dandelion. Or, as kids say it, a dandylion. In fact, it’s often the first flower that kids can name and it’s probably the most widely recognized blossom we have.  The English name is imported from the Middle French, dent de lion,  or lion’s tooth.  Nowadays, in this country of gorgeous green lawns,  it’s also the most despised weed. So it’s hard for people living now to realize that when this nation was in its infancy the early settlers carefully plucked the grass from around dandelions to give the little plants more sun.

Dandelions are not native to this continent, but were among the precious plants that early colonists brought over from England. They were brought not because the greens are edible, though they are, but because of their medicinal value. As soon as dandelions arrived here they settled in and spread. As anybody who has tried to take care of a lawn knows, when a dandelion goes to seed it turns into a little white puff ball, and if you pluck at that puffball — or simply blow at it — you discover that it’s composed of a lot of hair-thin stalks, each with a feathery top and a seed at the bottom. Of course, the slightest breeze will carry those seeds some distance. Furthermore, the seed, which is about an eighth of an inch long, has tiny barbs along its sides, so that when it lands it lodges into the soil. The hardy dandelion, sometimes carried on prairie schooners and sometimes carried on the wind, spread wildly across the continent. This is the despair of lawn fanatics today, but it was a joy to herbalists of the 18th century. There’s more to say about this remarkable plant, but just now you might want to take a look at the time lapse movie of a dandelion going to seed photographed by Neil Bromhall.

That’s a lot of seeds blowing in the breeze. And that’s because the dandelion flower isn’t a single flower but a mass of flowers gathered neatly into flower-like head. Each of those dandelion “teeth,” or “petals,” is a single flower. In old-fashioned botany, such a flower was called a composite. There are about 20,000 different composites around; it’s a great way to reproduce. But sexual reproduction isn’t the only way a dandelion can reproduce. If you pull up a dandelion and leave a bit of root behind, the root will send a clone dandelion up into the fresh air and sunlight. This is one hardy plant. If you get desperate and hack a dandelion into a dozen pieces, each piece can produce an exact clone of the original dandelion.

Clones get all their genetic material from their single parent, so they are exact duplicates of that parent — but you knew that already, right? If you like the look and taste of a particular apple, and you plant a seed from that apple, you have no idea what the apples on the tree that sprouts up will look like or taste like. The apple seed comes from an apple that was produced by a mix of genes that was the result of bees going from one blossom to another. But gardeners often want plants to be precisely like their floral parent, so they breed the plant until it has no ability to reproduce sexually. That’s what happened to the tulip. If you want a tulip that looks just like the picture in the garden catalog, you plant a tulip bulb that has been cloned from another tulip.

The word vitamin was coined around the beginning of the 1900s. Prior to that people knew that they needed to eat to stay healthy, and the knew that if they didn’t eat fresh foods they got scurvy, a terrible disease in which the victim feels generally rotten and depressed, spots blossom on the skin, especially the thighs and legs, the gums get spongy, teeth get loose, then come jaundice, pain, fever and death. Sailors on voyages that outlasted fresh food got scurvy all the time, as did soldiers who ate only dried grains and cured foods. From antiquity almost to the present, generations kept alive the knowledge of herbal remedies for scurvy. Of course, they didn’t know that the cure for scurvy was Vitamin C. But many were aware that eating fresh dandelions got the patient back on his feet quicker than anything else.

Dandelion greens are loaded with Vitamin C. In fact, 100 grams of dandelion greens have 35 milligrams of Vitamin C, 14,000 international units of Vitamin A, goodly amounts of iron, thiamine, riboflavin, calcium and potassium , plus Vitamins D, K, and B-complex. But scurvy is only one ailment that can be cured by dandelions. As long as we’re at it, we might as well add that dandelions are an excellent diuretic, which explains it’s more vulgar English name Piss-a-beds. The great English herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper, lists a catalog of ailments that can be alleviated by dandelions, and while not all of his claims have proven to be true, many have been validated by contemporary science. Culpeper’s chief work, The English Physician, was written in straight forward English, not Latin, and priced to be read by ordinary folks, not the learned, and because the author was a vigorous anti-Royalist his work was especially popular in Puritan New England. It’s no wonder that early English settlers in this country brought with them the remarkable dandelion as one of their chief sources of medicine.

Much of the material in this brief essay comes from a book as modest and useful as the dandelion itself, The Teeth of the Lion, by Anita Sanchez. It’s a delightful little book that not only gives us information about dandelions, but also digresses engagingly into history and natural lore. The book is paperbound, inexpensive, available from bookstores and online from Amazon. We heartily recommend it.

More Notes

The World Happiness Report, released by the United Nations, ranks countries on six key variables that support well-being: income, freedom, trust, healthy life expectancy, social support and generosity. This year, Finland is first, followed by Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland, followed by Netherlands, Canada,New Zealand, Sweden, Australia. The United States, which has never been in the top ten, silpped down four places from last year and is now 18th. President Trump may make American Great Again, but apparently not happier.