The rascal of the tarmac path

ALL against my proper horticultural upbringing (but in keeping with certain other childish inclinations) I have come to feel rather ambivalent about the dandelion. Though the most dastardly of weeds, common as dirt, it has, it seems to me now, certain irresistible glories.

In Glasgow this yellow-headed flower has just had a spectacularly successful season. As I write (as they say), the crop - which knows few bounds in terms of waste place, pavement edge, tarmac path, grass verge, car park, building site, or railway siding - has arrived at the seed stage: Its oceans and splashes of yellow have turned to ground mists and dustings of white. Such energy and atmosphere are strangely admirable.

And the dandelion's seed clock, that neat globe of delicate stars aloft on the slender, reddish stem, is magical, one of nature's most felicitous designs. It is also a gift for kids. I don't believe that even our age of digitalization has made redundant the gleeful child-fantasy of telling the time by blowing dandelion seeds into the air. They detach themselves with only the slightest show of reluctance, a few for each puff. You continue until the head is as bare as a monk's pate, except for a residual pattern of pinpricks, and the minute gossamer parachutists waft off in all directions, like the invasion of Normandy, to colonize any corners of the globe that might still be spared.

When no one is looking, I still play this game (though without counting the hours) and the slightly mischievous pleasure of assisting the increase of this ubiquitous herb doesn't seem to grow less because of persistent adulthood. Not that the plant needs any human help; a light breeze is quite enough to carry away its seeds. This year the weather has been dry, so that great drifts and eddies of dandelion seeds have been carpeting footpaths and gathering at the feet of trees like fluff accumulating under a bed.

The dandelion is the starling of the plant world: It has all the brass neck of the upstart surviver, little class, and no respect for anyone or any place. It is hard not to admire such relentless cheek.

In our garden, however, I have to relegate this profligate self-propagator - so accurately called in Dorset's local nomenclature ``Conquer More'' - to the status of weed. Here if I spot one I leap on it with all the plunge and pierce of a heron after a fish. It is Enemy No. 1, and it wages subtle war with me. It is a cheat. It starts to grow with quiet invisibility under another plant. If I don't discover it in time, it can get its taproot down and secure itself so effectively among the roots of its sheltering plant that the only way to extirpate it is to dig up both it and its host. If you pull it by the leaves, it simply abandons its roots like a lizard letting go of its tail in the confidence that it will grow another one.

Within days the remaining root of a dandelion will sprout new leaves and continue unabated its bid for giant-hood. Such feints and tactics work particularly well when it is growing in a crack in concrete - one of its cleverest and least accessible of homes. And it can push its way through several inches of tarmac without turning a hair.

The various theories as to how it got its name - which means ``lion's teeth'' - have, so far as I know, never included the obvious one: that this thing of leaf and stem and root, so tender to the touch, so tearable and breakable, can saw and rip and gnaw its way through anything, however hard or thick. It must therefore (whether you can see them or not) have teeth. And these gnashers must, of course, be identifiable with those of the King of Wild Beasts, the lion. Ergo - dents de lion. That's my theory, anyway.

As a gardener, one wouldn't object to the dandelion half so much if it would only let one dig it out more willingly. Other weeds are much more obliging - stinking groundsel, hawkweed, even willow herb - don't struggle too much. The large ``rosebay'' willow herb, or fireweed, is another matter: It, too, cuts and runs, leaving its roots behind it. As with the dandelion, this is a pity, because it is a spectacularly beautiful flower - tall, elegant, each vivid pink flower on its spire a wonder of formation. One or two in a garden would be most appealing. But if you say yes to one or two, you soon have several billion. Buttercups are also persuasively pretty to the eye, but they can take over a flower bed in a season. Why are they so greedy for ground?

There are other weeds for which there seems no excuse whatever. Thistles. Who apart from donkeys likes thistles? And nettles. They are beyond the pale, or should be. Ecological considerations are all very well, but the fact that nettles are the only food for a certain kind of butterfly-caterpillar, which is doomed to extinction if nettles vanish from the face of the earth, seems to me an uncertain reason for trying (as some enthusiasts are) to bring the nettle back into our good books and gardens. And anyway it seems to be doing fine in the wild in our part of the world.

There is, in fact, an increasingly strong lobby on behalf of weeds. In London every year, at the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show, weeds are nowadays given a fair amount of attention and affection. The herbicides that have removed so many wildflowers (the other name for weeds) from farmland, and the demolition of hedgerows previously bordered by them, do make the actual planting and propagation of ``weeds'' an increasing need. But no one in this lobby seems to explain very adequately how you can plant nettles and dandelions and thistles in your front garden and (given the fact that most people have to spend some of their time doing other things, like jobs) still manage to prevent them simply taking it over entirely.

If they could show how a dandelion patch can be kept tidily to itself, then I'll go along happily with Emerson's quote: ``What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.''

After all, I'm already halfway there with dandelions.

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