Of cabbages and dandelions
As we walked to school this morning, my 9 y.o. Malcolm scolded me for scattering the seeds of the dandelions in our 3-acre Lyon Park. I tried to defend the beauty of the much-reviled little weed. He may not have been persuaded, but smiled and suggested, “Maybe we should call it Dandelion Park?” I loved his gentle play on words — very much his flavor of humor.
I take it from the dandelion bounty that we’re not using poison. Cool. There are a lot more songbirds and butterflies around now, and I wonder if our reduced use of the various chemical lethalities has played a part. Thank you to everyone who pauses before reaching — or not reaching at all — for the Roundup. So many of our expectations about the perfection of gardens and produce and everything were invented by industries looking to sell something.
Dandelions aren’t that hard to control, anyway, unless you’re intent on a paper-thin perfect lawn. Even Scotts, purveyor of Roundup, advises, “A thick lawn is the best method for preventing dandelions and other broadleaf weeds.” Dandelion farmers reportedly hate controlling turf. So: Grow grass, kill weed. Or something like that…. There are limits, and I don’t hesitate to do the Borgia on my nemesis poison ivy (I’m wicked allergic). Generally it’s true that a weed is just a plant in the wrong place.
Dandelions are especially remarkable plants. The name means “tooth of the lion.” They are sturdy perennials that can reproduce themselves several different ways. Most are asexual hermaphrodites — so efficient is their design that they skip sex (agamospermy or apomixis) and clone themselves in efficient mass production. The male pollen these plants produce is not only useless to them but largely sterile, an interesting waste of resources with benefits to others — dandelions may not need bees, but bees like dandelions. To clone is also to abandon a major evolutionary advantage, and to risk extinction if conditions change. Some dandelions self-fertilize — autogamy or sex without a partner. Others, found in Europe but not North America, reproduce in the ordinary sexual way. Pollen from asexual plants can pollinate sexual ones.
The yellow flowers are really clusters of flowers/florets, as with daisies, each producing one of the thousands of seeds a plant can churn out each season. The taproot can extend more than a foot into the ground. The leaves are highly nutritious and if young don’t taste bad. Allegedly the milky substance in the stems is a mosquito repellent (that source said the same for catnip — which in this house would require forcible extraction of amorous cats).
If you hate dandelions — well, don’t get mad, get even … ever eaten dandelion greens? Can anyone tell me whether dandelion wine tastes as gross as it sounds? Supposedly the root can be dried, ground, and used as a substitute for coffee, “a tasty beverage that isn’t even all that bitter” — y’all can try that one first, let me know how it turns out. At your own risk!
For the more involved word-lover (I would say logophile, but what an unlovable word that is).
American Heritage Dictionary — dandelion:
Middle English dent-de-lioun, from Old French dentdelion, from Medieval Latin dēns leōnis, lion’s tooth (from its sharply indented leaves) : Latin dēns, dent-, tooth; see dent- in Indo-European roots + Latin leōnis, genitive of leō, lion; see lion.]
Word History: Dent-de-lioun, the Middle English form of dandelion, makes it easy to see that our word is a borrowing of Old French dentdelion, literally, “tooth of the lion,” referring to the sharply indented leaves of the plant. Modern French dent-de-lion, unlike Modern English dandelion, reveals to anyone who knows French what the components of the word are. The English spelling reflects the pronunciation of the Old French word at the time it was borrowed into English. The t in dentdelion probably disappeared early in Old French, having been absorbed into the related sound of the d. The earliest recorded instance of the word occurs in an herbal written in 1373, but we find an instance of dandelion used in a proper name (Willelmus Dawndelyon) in a document dated 1363.
[Posted to the Lyon Park neighborhood listserv April 28, 2008]