In my lifetime, dandelions seem to have been always despised. My father, a keen gardener who also kept an allotment, would survey his realm with gimlet eye and hoik out offending juveniles before they could take hold. My husband does the same. Although my friends and I, as children, presented bunches of wildflowers to our mothers, they never included dandelions. Later, my son was similarly selective. Playground wisdom used to say that touching a dandelion in bloom made you wet the bed – though picking them to blow away the ‘clocks’ later in the year was not deemed to have a similar effect. (It occurs to me now that the products of this latter activity must have sprung up afterwards to annoy my father.) We picked the daisies and buttercups that grew in profusion on the banks of the Coronation Channel that skirted Spalding, then an excitingly isolated place to play (mothers in those days worried neither about accidental drowning nor ‘stranger danger’), but not the dandelions. The only time that I took any interest in a dandelion was when someone told me it would make a good meal for my tortoise, but, accustomed as he was to a townie’s diet of chopped tomato and lettuce, he turned up his nose at it. Suspicion confirmed: dandelions were weeds, and useless.
As I said earlier this week, we’ve had a very strange spring. Some plants have flowered late, others early. Some seem to have flourished; others have struggled to survive. Dandelions are hardy plants – they keep on flowering for many months, their succession of new buds clinging close to the soil and evading even the mower’s blades; the tiniest portion of root becoming a new plant within days. A couple of years ago, I even saw one blooming a few days into the new year, its head poking through a dusting of snow. They are stubborn survivors. But this spring they haven’t needed to put up a fight to survive: instead, they have been having a ball! They must have relished all that snow and rain. They are popping up everywhere, their dark leaves glossy and luxuriant, their perfect heads glimmering like star-cut diamonds. I am reminded of the beautiful picture of a dandelion and hare in Kit Williams’ gorgeous puzzle book Masquerade, a botanically accurate depiction so lovingly executed that the artist must have valued the plant. One of the fields that the dog and I walk through daily is luminous gold, the dandelions so profuse that they might have been planted deliberately as a crop. (When he saw the glorious vision, he became puppyish with excitement and whirled round amongst the flowers, coming back to me with legs stained with their colour!) Their beauty is captivating, though I know their days are numbered: the farmer who owns the field will either cut them down with the grass or send in the cows to do the job.
Drinking in their splendour, I wondered how a farmer’s wife of two or three hundred years ago might have reacted to this sight. Dandelions first flower at the time of year that earlier generations dreaded as the notorious ‘hungry gap’, the period when all the fresh produce grown for the winter months was exhausted and the current year’s crop of vegetables had yet to mature. Diets became meagre and unbalanced; sometimes people suffered from hallucinations or showed other signs of malnutrition. I have no proof, but my guess is that such a woman would not have despised this fine display, nor turned her back upon it. I’ve just looked up ‘dandelion’ in my herbal, and discovered that the leaves can be used in salads, or cooked in soups and stews. The heads can be fried, or dried and then crushed as condiments. Dandelion wine has a powerful kick. Dandelion infusion makes a fine herbal tea. Dandelion roots, roasted and ground, can be used as a substitute for coffee, much like chicory roots. Dandelions are also reputed to have medicinal properties and, for generations, were used to cure or alleviate a wide range of ailments. I discover that the dandelion was only downgraded to the status of ‘weed’ at the end of the nineteenth century. Like the tortoise, we have turned into townies. Will the twenty-first century let the tide of fashion turn again and restore the reputation of the dandelion?
In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy the spectacle of their blooming profusion and look for a hare (quite common here) leaping over them.