Dandelion - Taraxacum officinale
This year the first flower to bloom on Magog Down was the dandelion. As early as January it could be found brightening the winter days at the north end of Memorial Wood.
Although it is amongst the most handsome of our wild flowers, the dandelion is so well known that it is often disregarded (at least until it makes an unwanted appearance on a manicured suburban lawn!). But it is 'not just a pretty face', it has botanical, medical and culinary attributes which make it one of the most fascinating members of our native flora.
Like those other members of the Compositae family, the 'flowers' of dandelions are, in fact, inflorescences consisting of numerous florets. Unlike the coltsfoot or the daisy, however, the dandelion has no central disc of 'tube florets', just radiating ranks of strap shaped 'ray florets' which narrow into tubes only at their bases. Each floret terminates in a single ovary which, remarkably, can produce a seed without having been fertilized (a phenomenon known as 'apomixis'). Curiously for a plant that does not need to be pollinated, dandelions produce a copious supply of nectar - ninety three species of insects have been recorded as visiting the flowers to feed on this delicacy. We may assume that the nectar production, and the bright, insect-attracting colour of the flowers, evolved before the apomixis - and how lucky we are that they did!
At night and in wet weather the flower closes up, the florets being protected by long green bracts which close over them. After flowering the bracts stay closed until the seeds have matured, and then they open to reveal the delicate globe of the 'dandelion clock' so beloved by children. Each seed has a long beak which terminates in a fine pappus of hairs. The lightest breath will carry them away leaving the bare capitulum - the bald appearance which gave the plant its mediaeval name of "priest's crown".
The more common name of the plant comes from the French "dent de lion". The plant is known by similar names all over Europe, but no one knows why. Some have suggested that the name comes from the notches of the leaves bearing a fanciful resemblance to lions' teeth. An alternative explanation is provided by the 15th century Ortus Sanitatis in which the author wrote of "dens lionis", a herb "much employed by Master Wilhemus, a surgeon, who on account of its virtues likened it to a lion's tooth".
Of the virtues of dandelions, if not of lion's teeth, much could be written. They possess diuretic, laxative and tonic properties and have been used in treating liver complaints. Mixed with other herbs, they have been employed in decoctions for the relief of a wide range of conditions from gall stones to piles.
Dandelion roots, roasted and ground, can be used as an alternative to coffee, from the flowers a tonic wine can be made, and the dried leaves have been used as an ingredient in herb beer.
Animals differ in their liking for the plant. It makes excellent food for rabbits but horses don't appreciate its bitter juice. For myself, I agree with the horses - but some folk enjoy the young leaves as an addition to a spring salad. They can also be eaten as a vegetable after boiling them like spinach, or form an ingredient in vegetable soup. If you prefer French cuisine, try small pieces of crispy fried bacon served hot on a salad of dandelion leaves and dressed with vinegar, bacon fat and seasoning (for extra colour throw in a few flower heads as well). The name of this dish? 'Pissenlit au lard'. Well, I did tell you that dandelions were diuretic!
One of our Friends sent us this beautiful picture of some Pasque Flowers taken in amongst the Cowslips in May 2016.
Photo by Jill Butler