The Cheeky Dandelion

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

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HARDLY worth mentioning, really, the dandelion.

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.

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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."

Jefferies is right. This flower with no center has a rich variation of hue in its raggy disc - it has surface color, and depth color, and hairy-center color.

I THINK the dandelion is almost uniquely the plant of the sun. Far more than the sunflower, its blooms are micro-symbols of the sun itself, of the great fierce orb, as chrome yellow as possible, its rays radiating with vigorous abandon out toward every possible degree of the compass. It is altogether microcosmographical - its imagery in its various stages of development borrowed from the universe and rendered in miniature.

Its seed head is as much like the moon as its flower is like the sun - a full white globe, spectrally substanceless. Its globosity is what gives its form conviction, but its constituent parts are as light as a spider's web, softer than duck down. Looked at closer, these miniscule spoked flying mechanisms - one per fruit - are a constellation, a highly organized Milky Way. As the wind progressively dislodges the seeds, this full moon wanes - half, quarter, a sliver, and finally every seed has wafted.

No wonder children have pretended to tell the time by blowing on a dandelion seed head (Piglet memorably does this in "Winnie the Pooh"). It's everything a clock should be, and its rhythms echo the astronomical ones. "This year, next year, sometime or never ... ." Children - and artists - sense this link between a flower's seeding and the movement of minutes, hours, days: a calendar of hopes.

ARTISTS, like poets, have not been universally persuaded about the dandelion as a subject worthy of their depiction. They appear quite infrequently in "great art." So when they are found, something is learnt about the artist's priorities and values. If you hunt very hard for it, there in the upper left area of the van Eyck brothers' great Ghent Altarpiece is the most perfectly observed dandelion. It is flowering and seeding simultaneously, which is true to nature. This remarkable painting was finished ab out 1430. It is highly original. The paradise-meadow of flowers epitomizes a love of flowers the monastic illuminators sometimes displayed in the borders of their prayer books - a tradition the van Eycks were both part of and developed from.

It was over 70 years before that careful observer, Albrecht Durer, painted his "Large Piece of Turf." It is a tour de force of detailed study and description of the commonest plants and grasses growing together - and there, in among them, is a dandelion. Durer accurately painted its pinkish, rather wayward stems. But the flowers at their tops are neither full sun or full moon. They are in their closed stage - at the point when they are secretly turning petals into seeds, their lips pursed.

Other depictions are few and far between, but Vincent van Gogh once or twice includes them in his burgeoning painterly celebrations of the "juice and joy" of nature, mentioning the fact in his letters.

Most recently the English artist Andy Goldsworthy has used the sheer yellow of dandelion petals to make some of his characteristically original, transitory works. This artist uses twigs, grasses, berries, snow, earth - and flowers. He photographs his "sculptures" so made, and leaves them to nature's ravages to melt, waft, or wither. His dandelions, strung together like a child's daisy chain or dandelion-crown, were laid in a meandering zig-zag on a water surface between the growing spears of flag iris. T he rich color of this yellow-orange-golden line is recorded in photographs. This work was done on May 4, 1987. It was, Goldsworthy noted, "bright, sunny." It all sounds very matter-of-fact. But there is about this temporary artistic toying with dandelion flowers and the fixing of it as a "permanent" image, something strangely poignant. An appreciation of the undeservedly overlooked. A silent witness to a successful - brilliantly successful - kind of glory.

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