Pissy beds, lion's tooth . . . It has to be the dandelion

Sat, May 5, 2012, 01:00

ANOTHER LIFE:THE YELLOW OF DANDELIONS is like no other, that glow of orange at the heart of the flower surely borrowed from the sun. The verges of our western roads have been swathed in dandelion gold this spring, and soon the traffic will whisk another ghostly blizzard of seed to the farthest ribbons of tarmac.

Dandelions seem, indeed, to get pretty well everywhere. The mammoth New Atlas of the British Irish Flora shows them growing solidly right across the UK, thinning out only in the Scottish Highlands above 1,220m. Ireland, it seems, has many more patches of dandelion-free landscape in bogs, on mountain tops and on the barer reaches of the Burren.

My own little crop lights up odd corners of the garden, but the readiness of sheep to graze on dandelions keeps the surrounding hillside quite free of them.

I’ve been thinking of all the lawns created by the thousands of families newly settled on Leinster farmland. Most of the new lawns will be made on topsoil of uncertain origin, which leaves its burden of wild seeds a matter of luck.

The soil beneath permanent pasture closely grazed for many years is relatively free of weed seeds, but little of eastern grassland has been left unploughed, if only for reseeding with ryegrass and clover. Old cereal fields are another matter, and the seeds of arable weeds can stay viable in the soil for as long as 58 years.

In any case, dandelions are born pioneers, delighting in disturbed soil, which is what a new lawn starts out as. Their actual abundance in established city lawns is often far below that of white clover, daisies and creeping buttercup.

In the newer dormitory estates, the list of weeds ahead of dandelions gets longer: yarrow, plantain and the lovely blue-flowered self-heal may be part of the original inheritance of seeds. But Taraxacum agg is still the plant that seems to spark the lawn-maker’s fiercest shame.

What is this agg? Isn’t the basic dandelion species Taraxacum officinale, the so-to-speak “official” plant of botany, herbalism and the index of innumerable wild-flower books? Not exactly: agg is short for aggregate. In its proliferating microspecies – more than 70 so far recorded in Co Dublin alone, with probably many more to come – the humble dandelion is, indeed, as the new Webb’s An Irish Flora confirms, “a very difficult genus”, its flowers not always to be told apart, even in the hand.

The American ecologist Paul Ehrlich once described the reproductive policy of dandelions as “perhaps the greatest mystery in the world of plant sex”. Despite their brilliant cushions of florets and the offering, in early spring, of nectar sought by bumblebees and hoverflies, they set seeds entirely asexually – without pollination and fertilisation – and never, therefore, interbreed. The environmental shaping of the microspecies, and their genetic persistence, is a continuing challenge for students of floral evolution.

The lacy globe of the dandelion clock is an exquisite piece of flower engineering, all of a piece with the plants’ invisible wheels and cogs and calculations. One set responds to changes in light, in fine weather stretching the florets to the sun and following its course across the sky, or closing the head up as soon as rain threatens, opening also for sunrise and closing at evening.

Another set of invisible pulleys keep the plant in proper shape.

Each year it produces new leaves at the top of its rosette, and every now and then the taproot contracts to pull the rosette downwards. This keeps the new leaves at ground level, spread to smother competing plants, gather the light and steer every raindrop straight to the root.

Such a ubiquitous plant group (thought to have arisen in the west Himalayas when dinosaurs were still grazing) has a long history of human herbal exploration. “Dandelion” is a corruption of the French dent-de-lion , which is turn echoed its old Latin name, dens leonis. In most European languages the flower’s name means the same thing – lion’s tooth – but the Irish caisearbhan (bitter stalk) is somewhat more germane. Pissenlit (pissy beds), also in French, speaks for the plant’s best-known property, but studies continue for its medicinal potential, whether diuretic, anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidative, anti-carcinogenic, analgesic, anti-coagulatory or prebiotic.

I think, rather, of dandelion wine, a favourite tipple of my country-born mother and still brewed by her after long years in town. I picked her buckets of the flowers in spring, a gallon for each gallon of wine, and found quite the best harvest between the old, lime-white tombs of the churchyard at the top of the hill. She fermented the flowers with lemons and raisins (for tannin) in a big earthenware crock under the stairs. The smell that crept out at this time was mysteriously dark and pungent, but the wine at Christmas brought a sip of spring.

Eye on nature

A blackbird and a thrush took turns dive-bombing and mobbing a heron at stepping stones in the river. The heron eventually flew off. Does this mean that the heron is a threat and eats birds’ eggs or baby birds?

Helen Pinoff, Rossinver, Co Leitrim

Yes.

I found a large brown worm in pots and in the garden. It was flat underneath with a gold band around its body. I hope it’s not the dreaded New Zealand worm.

Mildred Gilmore, Sligo

It is. Collect and destroy them and their round, black eggs, which are about 1cm in diameter.

When the weather gets warmer there are myriad small flies in the composter. Is this normal?

John Goode, Barna, Co Galway

They are fruit flies. To control them put in regular layers of shredded paper or cardboard and brown leaves.

There were a pair of mandarin ducks beside the Liffey at Islandbridge recently. Are they new to Ireland?

Annie Dibble, Inchicore, Dublin

No. Mandarin ducks were imported into these islands in the mid 18th century for wildfowl collections.

A correction: the creatures identified as springtails in Eye on Nature on April 14th were in fact wood hoppers, Arcitalitrus dorrieni.


Michael Viney welcomes observations at Thallabawn, Carrowniskey PO, Westport, Co Mayo, or email viney@anu.ie. Please include a postal address