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The Cheeky Dandelion

The plant-kingdom equivalent of starlings, the yellow bloom simply won't be put down

By Christopher Andreae / July 30, 1992



HARDLY worth mentioning, really, the dandelion.

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It doesn't exactly qualify for a book I have on my shelf called "Plants in Danger." It is - as the last word in a poem by Jon Silkin observes - "successful." It's a crass commoner in the country, a crowd-scene in the town - in fact it strikes me as the urban plant - the symbol of nature's refusal to be intimidated by the encroachments of humans over the land. Do what you like, it says, plants rule! Nothing comes near it for flourishing in tarmac, for cracking up through concrete, and for colonizing highw ay fringes, dusty alleyways, and neglected garden patches. It has its city competitors - willow herb, thistle, coltsfoot - but none of them have the combination of gall, cheek, and triumphant self-glorification of Taraxacum officinale.

Its usual English name has the right sound, the right associations, even if the word is factually the Anglification of the French "lion's tooth:" "dent de lion" (which most people think must have been adopted to describe the jagged edges of the leaves). Dandy-Lion: This plant does have something of the swank of a dandy, and something of the lordliness of a lion. But maybe it's more of a "dandiprat," a word to be found in Samuel Johnson's 1755 dictionary, defined by that stout gentleman as: "A little fell ow; an urchin: a word used sometimes in fondness, sometimes in contempt." Just right.

Such a streetwise guttersnipe of a plant - a kind of vegetable starling - is hardly the stuff of sweet romantic poetry. Wordsworth preferred his "golden daffodils." His sister Dorothy (who first saw those daffodils) mentions in her "Grasmere Journals" at least 42 kinds of wild plants, but not the dandelion. Chaucer identifies spring with daisies, not dandelions. Gerard Manley Hopkins anatomizes bluebells, not dandelions. And while I can't swear Shakespeare doesn't mention them at all, he quite obviously goes for things like eglantine, wild thyme, sweet violets, musk rose, and gillyflowers first.

In fact I have so far discovered only three poems which bring attention to bear on the dandelion. One, entirely devoted to it, is Jon Silkin's. This sinewy little description doesn't soften the subject. With such phrases as "small, coarse, sharp petals,/ Like metal shreds" and "like the first tryings, the machines, of nature/ Riveted into her, successful" Silkin finds strong words for a strong subject.

The poet of English suburbia and peripheral London, John Betjeman, recollects one of those several ways in which the dandelion claims a special relationship with children. In "Parliament Hill Fields" he proceeds "Up the hill where stucco houses in Virginia creeper drown -/ And my childish wave of pity, seeing children carrying down/ Sheaves of drooping dandelions to the courts of Kentish Town." The point is that dandelions in their first-seen beauty simply ask to be picked and taken home. But they soon d roop, and their flowers tend to close out of the sun. Thus the "wave of pity."

The third poem is an unfinished fragment of no great pretension, an attempt I made during a morning walk:

Vernacular dandelion

You care, let no one argue,

Entirely for yourself;

Compete only with dire

grass

For ubiquity . ...

By then I was home from my walk, and the concentration on brief lines and terse verse left me.

Perhaps, really, the dandelion belongs to the expansiveness of prose. Richard Jefferies, farmer and naturalist and above all writer, expatiated on the dandelion to a degree which makes quotation impossible or distorting. But on one occasion he asks an unexpected question: "What is the colour of a dandelion?" And his answer (for those of us who might instantly reply "yellow, of course") makes a point: "It is not yellow, nor orange, nor gold; ... They say the gipsies call it the Queen's great hairy dog-fl ower - a number of words to one stalk; and so, to get a colour to it, you may call it the yellow-gold-orange plant."