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DANDELIONS

Golden ‘weeds’ of wondrous ways

by Mark Brazil

It was a breezy day at Cape Notoro overlooking the Sea of Okhotsk on Hokkaido’s north coast. The sun was glinting on the waves below the cliffs and a skylark singing somewhere above was producing a cascade of summer sound.

My previous visit had been in winter, when the wind off the sea sliced through my warm clothing, bringing with it snow particles that stung my face like sand in a storm. But this time the breeze was wafting a different kind of snow — the delicate, frothy parachutes of dandelions. Fine as gossamer, lighter than down, the air was filled with them as they wafted across the cape, being dispersed on a breeze not even strong enough to keep a kite aloft.

“Weed” is an interesting term, one with strongly negative connotations. Yet open a plant book, examine the groupings, the families, the genera and you will find there are no such things as weeds. Weeds are all in the mind; merely plants that succeed in growing where we don’t want them to.

As a child back home in Britain, I was surprised at the lengths gardeners would go to to eradicate certain “weeds,” including the dandelion, when to me their wonderful golden heads appeared refreshingly joyful, representative of summer even on a rainy day.

Well for sure it wouldn’t do for their seeds to spread far and wide and annoy the neighbors — so why don’t gardeners just use their “weeding” energy to trim off the flowering heads before they set seed, thereby enjoying the best of them while not promulgating the worst? Gardeners, it seems, thrive on having something to exterminate.

Dandelions belong to the family Compositae, and share with daisies their flowering form — a single stem with a dense floral mass atop it. What appears to be a single flower is in fact a cluster of hundreds of tiny florets all crammed together. In the case of the dandelion, the stem is a hollow tube that leaks white “sap” when picked, and connects the flower to the root. The root is a deep taproot enabling the dandelion to survive in some of the most barren and inhospitable environments, such as between cracked paving stones in cities.

Japan’s dandelions are a mixed bunch. On one hand there are some attractive locals, such as the Kanto dandelion and more than a dozen others. Then there is also the very numerous and widely distributed “alien” dandelion — the seiyo tanpopo or European dandelion. The latter has been with us since the end of the 19th century, and is now fully naturalized and, it seems, out-competing native species in many areas.

In fact, the hardiness of the introduced species and the delicacy of the various indigenous species provide a rough environmental litmus test. The native species are less resistant to soil, water and air pollution than the hardy introduced species, and so disappear quickly when pollution becomes a problem — so leaving the field free for the aliens. The native species also rely on cross-fertilization by insects, and so can only reproduce where insect pollinators survive. In contrast, the introduced species is a successful pioneer even where insects do not thrive, because of its ability to self-fertilize and produce viable seed without the assistance of insects.

However dandelions, apart from their attractive and effervescent flowers, have other values. Their familiarity has led to them having numerous vernacular names, from swine’s snout and priest’s crown to telltime and piss-in-the-bed — and, of course, the French origin of the English name teeth-of-the-lion (because of the rosette of long, narrow, serrated leaves that arise at ground level and have a strongly toothed appearance).

In Europe, dandelions have long been used medicinally, and in some countries as food too. Young dandelion leaves (older ones are bitter) may be blanched and used in salads, or boiled. Both the leaves and the roots of dandelions have been used by herbalists since at least the 10th and 11th centuries.

Seasonal carpets

In Wales, apparently, they were cultivated as a crop with, as elsewhere, their roots being harvested, dried and used for a range of complaints from consumption to jaundice, as well as for a pick-me-up tonic, a laxative and a mild diuretic (hence its French name pissenlit). The dried roots, commercially grown in France, may also be used to make a caffeine-free coffee alternative, while the flowers may be used to make beer or wine.

In Hokkaido, the golden carpets of dandelions alongside country roads are a seasonal image, but from central Honshu southward, dandelions flower throughout the year. Their rich supplies of nectar and pollen make them firm favorites with bees, especially early and late in the season when other flowering species are fewest. It is not uncommon to find meadows of dandelions all of which have seeded at once, while nearby there may be carpets of flowers and seed heads at the same time.

A close look at a flower head will reveal whether your dandelion is a native or introduced species. When the head is still in bud, it is neatly enclosed in leaflike green bracts that fold back as the flower opens. In the introduced European species, the bracts fold so far back that many hang down beneath the flower in a ragged bunch around the stalk. In the native species, these remain pressed up against the base of the flower head.

Once the flower head has reached its prime, it closes, the dead petals fall, the seeds mature, dry, and form their parachutes. The elongated, mature seeds are tightly clustered in ranks on the flattened flower head, with each producing a fine thread atop which is a fluffy white puffball. The once-golden heads then whiten to become spherical gossamer-light clusters of parachutes which, as they dry, are more and more easily dislodged by the wind (or children’s playful puffs). These feathery heads then transport seeds across the landscape so efficiently that there can be few areas of disturbed ground that do not sprout golden-headed dandelions.