Is there a greater force of nature than the dandelion? - Take on Nature

From its medical purposes to culinary value Stephen Colton ponders the resilience of the dandelion

woman  sitting in the grass among daisy and dandelion flowers female  feet and female hands. close up
Dandelions are an underappreciated force of nature (Ekaterina Vasileva-Bagler/Getty Images)

On April 17, PA news reporter, Gráinne Ní Aodha. reported in this paper on a speech given by former Irish President, Mary Robinson. to the Centre for Climate and Society at Dublin City University. She spoke of the urgent need to spend much more on climate change measures to help make Ireland, “the greenest, the most sustainable island in the world.”

Following her presidency, Robinson continued to champion human rights and women’s rights through her role as UN High Commissioner on Human Rights. She has also been a strong advocate for the strengthening of environmental protections worldwide and combating climate change, causes she frequently highlights in her current role as chair of The Elders, global leaders working for peace, justice, and a more sustainable planet.

At the end of the article, it was noted Robinson was wearing a new ‘dandelion’ badge on her lapel and reference was made to her newly-founded, women-led climate justice movement Project Dandelion, named after the flower. The dandelion was chosen she says, because of its resilience, deep roots, and presence across all continents.

During an address to the Right Here, Right Now Global Climate Summit in 2022 at the University of Colorado, Boulder, she said of the flower, “Have you ever tried to get rid of the damn thing?”, to great applause.

Reflecting on Robinson’s choice of the dandelion as a symbol for the new movement, I thought about this common, often unloved flower. The English name dandelion, from the French ‘dent de lion’, was first used in the 15th century, which has its origins in the Medieval Latin ‘dens leonis’, meaning ‘lion’s tooth’, referring to the jagged, tooth-shaped leaves.

This global plant is easily recognised by its bright yellow flower heads of closely packed petals on a single stem, followed by globular heads of seeds and downy white tufts.

Found in fields, gardens, roadsides and waste ground, Taraxacum Officinale has been given many names in Ireland, one of the most common ‘piss the bed’ or ‘wet the bed’, thought to have come from the plant’s diuretic properties.

Irish novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett references this name in Watt (1953) writing: “Of flowers there was no trace, save of the flowers that plant themselves, or never die, or die only after many seasons, strangled by the rank grass. The chief of these was the pissabed.”

Other common names for the plant include monkshood, Irish daisy, swine’s snout and clock flower as it opens and closes with the sun.

The fluffy seedheads of dandelions, also called ‘clocks’, were used in various children’s games involving blowing off the seeds. Among the many Irish names for the flower are caisearbhán and lus Bhríde, Brigid’s herb, linked to the saint because dandelions are one of the first flowers in bloom around the time of her festival, Imbolg.

Mac Coitir, in Irish Wild Plants, Myths Legends & Folklore (2006), notes that in Scotland, this link to Brigid is informed by the belief that milky sap from the plant’s stem, “nourished the early lamb, just as Brigid protected the young livestock”.

Portrait of girl blowing dandelion clock
The fluffy seedheads of dandelions, also called ‘clocks’, are used in various children’s games involving blowing off the seeds (Flashpop/Getty Images)

As well as the medicinal uses associated with dandelions, they also have culinary value with young leaves often used in salads. American children’s author, Emilie Poulsson, wrote of the dandelion:

“Pretty little Goldilocks, shining in the sun, Pray, what will become of you when the summer’s done?

“Then I’ll be old Silverhead; for, as I grow old, All my shining hair will be white instead of gold”

This forced me to reflect on its beauty and look at it differently. The dandelion, like Mary Robinson herself, is a real force of nature.