The flowers started coming up two months ago in their time-honoured order: snowdrops, crocuses, daffs. We awaited them through the dark months, and had often imagined them lying closed in rows under the soil, like the cool, damp hats of bishops in a vast, gloomy sacristy. But see how quickly they have passed. Spring is synonymous with mildness, but the first warm wind is a starting pistol for plants, signalling the wild race to put out their colours. Now the woods are full of celandines, wood sorrel and garlic. The blackthorn is already fading; in a week we will have bluebells and apple blossom; in three weeks, may and lilac. We will welcome them all, and wonder where the time went.
Amid this transience the dandelions are constant, and it seems a surprise that they are so often overlooked. They are perhaps not a ‘pretty’ flower, but they are beautiful in all their phases.
Because they are here almost all year round, the many stages of their development can be observed at once. You can see them before they bloom, enclosed in puckered buds like a highwayman’s drawstring bag containing the bullion of spring. At their zenith they are shaggy yellow suns in the grass. Then after all the seeds have been dispersed they remain for a few hours, showing their little pale pates, before these darken and the flowers fade back into the grass.
And of course they are most beautiful when in seed.
I pinch off one cool stem, pale green with a rhubarb blush, erect but slightly bowed two-thirds up below the sudden orb of fluff. This is the dandelion ‘clock’, beloved of the children who are still shown how to blow off the seeds, each a miracle of balance, the weight of the tapered brown seed set off by the plumed parachute of hairs that splay out like a sweep’s brush at the other end of a stiff little fibre. Instead of puffing them all off, I remove an individual seed and let it drop onto my notebook. I keep plucking, and ten minutes later I have a pile of 82 seeds (or 83, but I’m not counting again) wavering across the pad in a soft froth.
Neither will the dandelion disappoint those who believe that real beauty lies in utility. Its leaves, stalks and juice hold a latex which, although bitter to the taste, has been used for at least a millennium in the treatment of menstrual pain, excess blood sugar and vitamin D deficiency, among other maladies. It is not in the nature of dandelions to advertise these healing powers, because dandelions are paragons of modesty. Their graces are plain to see, but they affect no airs. There is, in fact, something cheerfully dissolute about them, even in their pomp, and it is a nice incongruence to witness the stalks of these unassuming democrats being looped into flaccid mayoral chains by the children who pelt hot and shrieking across the playing-field, or practise their cartwheels for the playground showdown.
I had known that the name ‘dandelion’ is a corruption of the French dent de lion, but in my carelessness had not considered that the epithet derives from the plant’s jagged leaves, rather than its more familiar saffron florets. The French name being in turn a translation of the Latin, most of the languages of Europe call it something similar. In Polish, however, it is mniszek lekarski (nuns’ balm) on account of its medicinal value, and in Hungarian pitypang, which may sound beautiful when pronounced phonetically in English, but actually sounds more like pitchpong. The dandelion’s first medicinal use was apparently by Arab doctors, who called it alhndaba’. These varied names attest to the dandelion’s wide distribution, which is in turn a compliment to its tenacity. What the layman can praise as tenacious, though, the proud lawn-keeper may condemn as a bloody nuisance. Hence the very different name given to dandelions by Tunisian gardeners: ‘Sheetan! – ‘Satan!’
GERARD FOSSE was born in Lanarkshire. He now lives in Nuneaton, where he works as a library assistant and oboe teacher