One of Spring’s first flowers,
Love them or despise them, dandelions are everywhere this time of year
By Michael Walsh
May 10, 2023
I sit alone in the tall green grass till the children come out to play.
Dandelion, what do the children do when they come out to play?
They take my head in their dimpled hands and blow my hair away.
Dandelions are every child’s delight. Who doesn’t remember sending the seeds floating in the air as part of childhood innocence? Or telling how much a certain boy or girl is thinking of you by the number of seeds left after a single breath. In the language of flowers, one can forecast rain when the plant does not open in the morning or if the seeds fly off the stalk when there is no wind. In parts of central Europe, there is a belief that collecting the plants on Midsummer Eve – the longest day of the year and when the plant’s medicinal properties are strongest – will ward off witches.
Interestingly, the ball of seeds (individually called a pappus) is also referred to as a “peasant’s clock” from a period when it was believed that the number of breaths needed to dislodge all the seeds indicated the time of day.
Each seed has about one hundred filaments connected to a central point, forming a shape resembling a chimney sweep’s bristle brush. In fact, these filaments are responsible for the remarkable physics that allows the seeds to be transported to a distance of over 100 kilometres from the parent plant. It wasn’t until quite recently that the mechanism of how this occurs was fully understood.
Until that time, one assumed that the filaments acted as parachutes that held the seed aloft. However, that didn’t explain how the filaments can detach in the absence of wind. One train of thought turned to the ability of flightless insects that swim through the air. The seed’s unique flight mechanism was first described by C. Cummins and associates, in 2018, in the journal Nature. Using a vertical wind tunnel, the researchers found that air passing through the filaments creates a detached circular vortex shaped like an ellipse standing on its end. Aerodynamically, this vortex creates lift, like the airflow over an airplane’s wing, and allows the transport of the seeds over long distances.
The plant, today regarded as a “weed,” is full of surprises. For instance, the name “dandelion” is a corruption of the Latin dens leonis which describes the plant’s deep-lobed leaves. At some point, the leaves reminded someone of a lion’s teeth – hence the French name dent-de-lion. Other names pay tribute to the plant’s diuretic properties. In France, it is named pissenlit – a common menu item is salade de pissenlit au lard. In literature, Victor Hugo refers to manger des pissenlits par la racine as a metaphor for death. In Britain, the term “wet-a-bed” refers to this plant.
Botanically, the plant is referred to as Taraxacum officinale, derived from taraxos, Greek for “disorder” and officinale from New Latin meaning “of pharmaceutical value.”
The plant (botanically a herb) is a member of the large Asteraceae family that includes daisies, sunflowers, lettuce and artichokes. A native to Europe and Asia, it was brought to North America as seeds by early settlers. The early mid-western farmers scattered the seeds over the plains creating millions of bee-pollinated flowers that ensured ample supplies of honey production.
The plant’s therapeutic properties were first described nearly 1,100 years ago by Arab physicians to treat liver and spleen ailments. The First Nation’s people used the plant to treat kidney disease. In Mexico, it was used to treat diabetes and in traditional Chinese medicine, for upper respiratory infections. To this day, commercialized dandelions are cultivated in Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Romania and the United Kingdom.
In 1543, the German physician and botanist, Leonhard Fuchs, documented the plant’s use for the treatment of gout, diarrhea, spleen and liver complaints.
The plant has a high level of antioxidants which reduce cell damage caused by oxidative stress in chronic diseases. In addition, it is rich in beta-carotene, ascorbic acid and lecithin (a preventative for cirrhosis).
In fact, it is one of the few plants that is edible in its entirety. The leaves, if picked before the flower emerges, are used for raw or cooked salad. (More mature leaves have a high level of oxalic acid, causing a bitter taste). The buds, when cooked, are described as tasting better than the finest French artichoke hearts. The roots, when roasted and ground, form a coffee substitute. The flowers can be used to make dandelion wine (invented during the prohibition) and herbal tea. Other uses of the flowers include incorporation into soups (with beef broth) and dandelion beer.
‘The plant has a high level of antioxidants which reduce cell damage caused by oxidative stress in chronic diseases. In addition, it is rich in beta-carotene, ascorbic acid and lecithin.’
The plant produces a deep tap root that can extend over three feet in length, allowing the absorption of nutrients over a large area. It also has a protective mechanism against insect herbivores. More specifically, the plant produces taraxinic acid in its roots which acts as both a deterrent and a toxin. In addition, the leaves and flowers produce ethylene gas which discourages the growth of nearby broadleaf plants – thereby decreasing competition. However, if planted near fruiting perennials or annuals (including tomatoes), the ethylene gas will encourage fruit ripening.
The plant’s taraxinic acid is associated with latex production. Interestingly, the latex in the Russian variety produces high-quality natural rubber. First investigated during World War II, it is still considered an alternative to the current monoculture rubber tree sources and the growing demand for natural rubber.
‘…those with a Calvinist notion of “weed-free” lawns dump over 67,000,000 pounds of lawn chemicals annually (mostly 2,4-D) to control these plants.’
Finally, any discussion about this would be incomplete without including those that tend lawns. In fact, those with a Calvinist notion of “weed-free” lawns dump over 67,000,000 pounds of lawn chemicals annually (mostly 2,4-D) to control these plants. In some cities, it is a fineable offence to have these plants growing on residential property. Despite these best efforts, however, these plants still thrive – emerging between cracks on city sidewalks to covering vast country fields. It appears that for the foreseeable future, they will remain as a fixture that signals the beginning of Spring and provide amusement for one of childhood’s favourite pastimes.
Michael Walsh is a long-time Westmount resident. He is happily retired from nearly four decades in the field of higher education technology. A “professional student” by nature, his academic training, and publishing, include statistical methodology, mycology and animal psychology. During this period, he was also an officer in the Canadian Armed Forces. Prior to moving to Montreal, he was contracted by the Ontario Ministry of Education evaluating bilingual primary and secondary school programs. Today, he enjoys spending time with his (huge) Saint Bernard while discovering the city’s past and sharing stories of the majestic trees that grace the parks and streets. He can be contacted at michaelld2003 @hotmail.com or through his blog Westmount Overlooked