‘April brings the sweet spring showers, On and on, for hours and hours.’ Lines written by Michael Flanders in ‘A Song of the Weather’ in 1956, writes Dick Warner
Of course, he was writing about English weather but Ireland’s weather in April is at least as fickle. However, one of the sweet spring showers eventually ended and a patch of blue sky rolled in. When the sunshine struck the wet field outside the window there was a sudden explosion of golden yellow — a sea of dandelions.
Dandelions are one of those flowers that close at night or in dull weather but open when the sun shines. A field full of them can look green and within a minute turn yellow. Everyone knows what a dandelion looks like, or, at least, they think they do. They belong to the genus Taraxacum and, according to DA Webb in his classic An Irish Flora, written in 1977, this is “a very difficult genus of a multitude of forms, which set seed without pollinating, and never, therefore, interbreed”.
Dandelions are widely distributed in the world so this difficulty has caused arguments among botanists all over the globe.
However, the problem really needn’t concern us as long as we know what a dandelion is. A rosette of deeply toothed leaves (the ‘dents de lion’, or lion’s teeth, that give the plant its name) over a deep tap root and supporting a hollow stem filled with sticky white sap. The flower is at the top of the stem and eventually forms the ‘clock’ of fluffy grey seeds that the wind will blow into my garden making me get down on my knees with a trowel trying to dig out the new plants.
There are organic gardeners who cherish dandelions because they say that the long tap root mines nutrients in the sub-soil and brings them to the surface.
After a couple of hours trying to dig out those long tap roots because dandelions are threatening to smother my vegetables I find it difficult to share their enthusiasm. However, I do acknowledge that the flowers are attractive and the plants are valuable to wildlife.
Dandelions have a long flowering season, at least from March to October, and, rather strangely for a plant that doesn’t require pollination, they seem to be rich in nectar. So they are a valuable source of food for bees, butterflies and other nectar-eating insects, particularly on sunny days early and late in the year when little else is available.
They also have human uses. Every part of the plant is edible. You can make coffee from the roots, tea and salad from the leaves and wine from the flowers. There are medicinal uses too. Dandelion tea was once held to be a cure for consumption and when I was young we used to rub the sticky white juice from the stem on our warts to make them go away.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved