Rock­ing around the dan­de­lion clock

Gen­er­a­tions of chil­dren have made the dan­de­lion a per­ni­cious weed by blow­ing its spher­i­cal seed­head to the four winds, yet, ob­serves Ian Mor­ton, we still have great af­fec­tion for its cheer­ful golden mops

Country Life Every Week - - CONTENTS -

Gen­er­a­tions of chil­dren have blown its seed­head to the four winds and, ob­serves Ian Mor­ton, we still have great af­fec­tion for the cheer­ful yel­low flower

LIKE so many fa­mil­iar wild plants, the dan­de­lion has a rich tra­di­tional his­tory, most of it pro­pi­tious. Coun­try folk loved those golden mops of spring as har­bin­gers of the months of warmth. Dan­de­lions spoke of child­hood and hope and were wo­ven into spring wed­ding bou­quets to bring good luck. To dream of dan­de­lions promised a happy re­la­tion­ship.

The tallest stalk a child could find in­di­cated how it would gain height over the com­ing year and, when the bloom was held un­der a child’s chin, the greater the re­flected glow, the kin­der and sweeter the child would be­come. No ru­ral babe es­caped the tick­ling petals.

The seed­head, that fas­ci­nat­ing and in­tri­cate globe com­bin­ing ge­o­met­ri­cal in­tegrity with gos­samer del­i­cacy, held as much sym­bol­ism as the flower and, for our omen­rid­den an­ces­tors, blow­ing on the ripe struc­ture of­fered choices when it came to in­ter­pret­ing how many of the lit­tle para­troop­ers de­parted.

The favourite for young women was ‘he loves me, he loves me not’, a process that also ap­plied to pluck­ing daisy petals. Seeds float­ing away were thought to carry feel­ings of af­fec­tion to the loved one, how­ever, if any re­mained af­ter a hearty puff, they sug­gested that the in­tended had reser­va­tions about the re­la­tion­ship.

Then again, the num­ber re­main­ing might fore­tell the num­ber of chil­dren to be born of the forth­com­ing union or, al­ter­na­tively, how many years of life lay ahead. They were also taken to in­di­cate the hour of the day, hence the pop­u­lar word ‘clock’ for the dan­de­lion seed­head. Seed­heads folded um­brella-like were taken to fore­tell rain and, for the re­li­gious ob­server, the plant sym­bol­ised grief and the Pas­sion of Christ.

As ev­ery school­boy used to know, the name came to us as a ren­der­ing of the French for lion’s teeth, a ref­er­ence to the jagged leaves; Welsh, Span­ish, Por­tuguese and Ital­ian all have sim­i­lar ver­sions and Ger­many and Nor­way use names that are a di­rect trans­la­tion. How­ever, the French them­selves have adopted the plant’s tra­di­tional rep­u­ta­tion as a her­bal di­uretic, call­ing it pis­senlit—lit­er­ally, wet-the-bed.

In some English ru­ral re­gions, a di­rect lin­guis­tic con­nec­tion has pro­vided the name ‘piss­abed’, al­though plenty of di­alect al­ter­na­tives are recorded—among them blow­ball, canker­worth, witch’s gowan, milk witch, Ir­ish daisy, monk’s head, priest’s crown, swine’s snout and white en­dive.

In Italy, by the way, the dan­de­lion may be called the pisacan, aris­ing be­cause the plant ap­pears at pave­ment edges where dogs cock their legs.

The dan­de­lion is an an­cient plant—fos­sil seeds found in south­ern Rus­sia date from the Pliocene pe­riod some 30 mil­lion years ago —and its her­bal and food val­ues were known to the early Chi­nese, Egyp­tians, Ro­mans and Greeks. Some 2,000 vari­ants have been iden­ti­fied world­wide and the plant held a place in the herbal­ists’ al­manac through­out Europe. Its cu­ra­tive virtues in re­spect of the stom­ach were suf­fi­ciently prized for the Pil­grim Fa­thers to trans­port it on the Mayflower across the At­lantic, its air­borne le­gions spread­ing as set­tlers colonised the con­ti­nent.

The young leaves of our na­tive Tarax­acum

of­fic­i­nale were a fash­ion­able del­i­cacy in Vic­to­rian sand­wiches and sal­ads well be­fore their virtues were found to in­clude vi­ta­mins A, C and K, plus trace el­e­ments of cal­cium, potas­sium, man­ganese and iron. The dan­de­lion has a global place in tra­di­tional dishes from Crete to Korea.

It is also a drinks con­stituent, petals com­bin­ing with cit­rus to make wine, with bur­dock to pro­duce the once pop­u­lar Bri­tish sum­mer drink and with other hedgerow prod­ucts to make root beer. It roots may be roasted and ground to pro­duce a caf­feine­free, cof­fee-like brew.

Al­though widely re­garded by gar­den­ers and lawn-keep­ers as a peren­nial nui­sance, the dan­de­lion is said to add min­er­als and ni­tro­gen to the soil, to bring nu­tri­ents to the sur­face for the ben­e­fit of shal­low-rooted plants and to re­lease eth­yl­ene to en­cour­age fruit to ripen. Its golden mops, as in­tensely au­re­ate as any cul­ti­vated flower, pro­vide bees and other in­sects with nec­tar early in the flow­er­ing sea­son. The plant feeds cer­tain moth and but­ter­fly lar­vae, such as the scarce pearl-bor­dered frit­il­lary, and the seeds are valu­able food for sev­eral low­land birds such as sky­larks and buntings.

The tra­di­tional as­pects of the dan­de­lion may be widely dis­re­garded these days, but the fu­ture holds some in­trigu­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties to­tally un­con­nected with tra­di­tion. The ‘milk’ —seen when the stem or root is snapped— has been iden­ti­fied as a la­tex sap with nat­u­ral char­ac­ter­is­tics sim­i­lar to con­ven­tional rub­ber and sci­en­tists in Ger­many are con­vinced of its po­ten­tial.

In Oc­to­ber 2013, work­ing with plant spe­cial­ist bod­ies and tyre giant Con­ti­nen­tal, the Fraun­hofer In­sti­tute for Molec­u­lar Bi­ol­ogy and Ap­plied Ecol­ogy, a huge re­search or­gan­i­sa­tion with nearly 70 cen­tres in Ger­many, launched a five-year pro­gramme to in­ves­ti­gate whether la­tex de­rived from the dan­de­lion might have a com­mer­cial ap­pli­ca­tion. It was found that Tarax­acum kok-saghyz, a va­ri­ety found in Rus­sia, of­fered the best high-yield roots.

The pro­gramme, called Tarax­agum, de­rived from the dan­de­lion genus and gummi, the Ger­man for rub­ber, was de­vel­oped at a ded­i­cated lab­o­ra­tory es­tab­lished in An­klam, north­ern Ger­many. The ra­tio­nale is that an an­nual and read­ily har­vested crop grown in Euro­pean con­di­tions on land not suit­able for food crops and within easy reach of a man­u­fac­tur­ing site could of­fer ob­vi­ous lo­gis­ti­cal ad­van­tages over la­tex rub­ber ob­tained from slow-grow­ing trees in dis­tant climes.

Fur­ther­more, the dan­de­lion pro­duces its seeds by apomixes—with­out the need for pol­li­na­tion —so ev­ery seed is ge­net­i­cally iden­ti­cal to the par­ent plant and re­pro­duc­tion is gen­er­ous. Prop­a­ga­tion would present no bar­ri­ers, so, once the re­searchers had de­vel­oped the ideal cul­ti­var, the na­ture of the plant would take over.

‘The ini­tial re­sults are very promis­ing,’ en­thuses lead sci­en­tist Dr Anna Mi­siun. ‘We see huge ad­van­tages for the en­vi­ron­ment and less de­pen­dence on tra­di­tional ma­te­ri­als with their some­times heav­ily fluc­tu­at­ing mar­ket prices. Dan­de­lions grow in mar­ginal soils as well as in re­gions with tem­per­ate cli­mates. This would ob­vi­ate the need for trans­port from trop­i­cal coun­tries and im­prove the raw ma­te­rial’s car­bon foot­print. One of the big­gest chal­lenges will be ob­tain­ing the ma­te­rial on an in­dus­trial scale.’

There is no threat to the rub­ber plan­ta­tion in­dus­try, adds Dr Mi­siun, as the world­wide de­mand for rub­ber is steadily in­creas­ing

The Tarax­agum project has al­ready at­tracted sev­eral tech­ni­cal and Green awards and pro­to­type winter truck tyres and en­gine bear­ings promis­ing high anti-vi­bra­tion ad­van­tages have been pro­duced by Con­ti­nen­tal, whose con­ven­tional tyres are fit­ted as orig­i­nal equip­ment to nearly one-third of ve­hi­cles pro­duced in Europe. An­klam is ex­pand­ing its land hold­ings to in­crease crop lev­els and se­ries tyre pro­duc­tion is fore­seen within 5–10 years.

In a trans­port era in which driver­less elec­tric cars and un­manned trucks are un­der devel­op­ment, dan­de­lion tyres are cer­tainly not a bizarre idea. Nor per­haps is the no­tion of a new as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween in­dus­try and farm­ers, with an an­nual con­tract har­vest of a root crop timed to al­low nat­u­ral re­seed­ing on oth­er­wise poor or un­pro­duc­tive arable land.

‘Dan­de­lions spoke of child­hood and hope and were wo­ven into wed­ding bou­quets

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.