Our man in Europe, horticulturist Mike Alexander, on the season of the dandelion, the bane of gardeners everywhere.
The dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is a perennial weed that plagues gardeners and grows on every continent on the planet, including Antarctica. At this time of year in France, whole fields suddenly turn bright yellow, fading to a whitish grey as the flowers become the puff-ball seed heads that kids the world over love to blow and scatter in the wind.
The dandelion is a member of the Asteraceae family and technically that golden head we refer to as a flower is not a flower at all, but a collection of florets clustered together to form a composite head. These ripen into the ball like seed head and each little seed can travel great distances, riding on its own individual parachute. One dandelion may produce as many as two thousand seeds per season, which is one of the reasons they have been such successful colonizers.
The word dandelion comes from the French “dents de lion” or lions teeth, which is a description derived from its spiked leaf edges. In fact, in France nobody calls them that and here they are almost always referred to as “pissenlit”. This is a derivation of the term pis au lit (meaning to “wet your bed”). In spring, many French foragers gather hundreds of the flower heads mix them with various other ingredients to make dandelion wine or “vin de pissenlit”. Dandelion wine has a taste not unlike port and is widely drunk here as an aperitif. In many countries, the making of so-called country wines has become a pastime restricted primarily to a small but quaint section of society that is now almost extinct. Among French enthusiasts, it is still a thriving occupation and these types of fortified wines are made with any thing from peach leaves to the tips of the black thorn bush found growing in hedges. Undoubtedly, pissenlit wine is the most common home made fortified wine and, as the name suggests, it is supposed to cause certain nocturnal problems for those who over indulge.
Dandelion is so common here that as a gardener one learns to work with them rather than try to get rid of them. They are very difficult to dig up as their tap root can go down to quite extraordinary depths and to poison them in the quantities that we have here would involve the use of herbicide on a scale not seen since Agent Orange was regarded as acceptable. I generally either weed wack or mow them down, though I do know of a professional gardener nearby who became so allergic to the milky latex that they produce that he had to abandon string trimming altogether. Before commencing either of these methods of assault I invite my wife to wander around with a bag collecting heads to make our annual harvest knowing that she will account for several hundred flowers before I need to become involved. The leaves are added to salads and at one time the dried root was ground up and drunk as a sort of decaffeinated coffee. As for wetting my bed, it hasn’t happened yet but perhaps I just haven’t eaten quite enough to send me scurrying in the middle of the night.
Mike Alexander, GV’s European correspondent, lives in Southern France where he manages a large estate garden. A horticulturist for more than 20 years who has professionally gardened in the UK, France and Africa, he writes regularly on gardening, food and environmental issues for magazines and Web sites in the U.S., France, South Africa and New Zealand.