Dandelion | Harbinger of Spring

This photo courtesy of .

This photo courtesy of wallpaperswide. Subsequent photos copyright by Mike Alexander.

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.

dandelion-flowers-weeds-france-1The 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-flowers-weeds-france-2Dandelion 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

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.

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7 Responses to Dandelion | Harbinger of Spring

  1. Wow-facts about our fave weed: the flower isn’t a flower at all, it makes a great wine that tastes like port, the French actually work with them in their gardens and something about wetting your bed. A great read for all dandelion-haters. Learn to love your enemy.

  2. Thanks for sharing the stories about France! Here in the States we have this nifty tool called “the Grandpa’s weeder” which works like a charm on dandelions (if you don’t like them around, that is!). We bought one a few years back & I use it all season. Digs into the ground deeply, leverages the weed and you yank the whole plant out. (Big ones might take a try or two–you get the knack pretty quickly.) No chemicals, no kneeling and digging. Not sure you can get them over there but for US readers, they’re available and not expensive.

  3. I flew over our County in Vermont in 1957 and all field were loaded with Dandelions but mine. I did Organic vs Chemical starting in 1950 for three years. I found Organic to be superior to Chemical and changed totally to Organic in 1953. Chemical fertilizer is highly acid and dandelions like this. I used cow manure and rock phosphate nothing acid. I had one Farmer within 40 feet from my fields who had dandelions. I won many hay awards at Farm contests with no points taken from my hay because of weeds. Won with 99.7 point out of 100 for three years. Test the soil for PH and this will be your answer.

  4. Donald Lewis says:

    Dandelions like acid soil. Take soil tests to see how acid. I had dandelions until I went Organic and they disappeared. Chemical fertilizer is very acid and will promote dandelions..

  5. edremsrola says:

    I am a fan of the Dandelion – such a healthful plant! Here is one photographer’s vision: http://arceesmith.wordpress.com/2012/04/21/common-weed-or-intrinsic-beauty/

  6. Kate Shelby says:

    Dandelions may have a certain beauty (in their own way) and health benefits (as far as phytonutrients), but they are non-native (to North America) invasive plants that spread like wildfire and strangle/shade out lawns and other desirable ornamentals. And I don’t know anyone with a big enough appetite for them (because of their bitter taste) to eat the problem away.

  7. janjohnsen says:

    acid soil encourages dandelions….chemical fertilizer makes soil more acid….ergo….

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