Dandelion

(Taraxacum officinale) It can be found in bloom virtually all the year round, but the great burst of colour on meadow land occurs in spring, and it is natural that the plant should be an associate of the spring goddess, Brigid, sanctified as St Bridget, or Bride. Milk-yielding plants like dandelion were often allied with the goddess in Scottish folklore (F M MacNeill. 1959). It was a logical connection; as a cowherd in one of her aspects, she would be associated with cattle, and so with such flowers as the dandelion, yielding a milky juice which was believed to nourish the young lambs in spring (E E Evans). It is said in the Highlands of Scotland that "the plant of Bride", i.e., the dandelion, "nourishes with its milk the early lamb" (F M MacNeill. 1959). The flower is one of the three insignia of Bride, the other two being the lamb and the oyster-catcher (Urlin). Its names in Gaelic are "Bearnon Bride", "The little notched flower of Bride", "The little flame of God", and "St Bride's forerunner". St Bride of the shores wears it at her breast, and the sunlight is said to follow.

To dream of dandelions means misfortune (Dyer. 1889), but if a girl wants to dream of her future husband, she should, according to a French belief from the Franche-Comté, put a whole dandelion leaf under her pillow (Sebillot). But you can foretell all sorts of things with dandelions, usually the seed heads - the weather, for example; children use the seed tufts as barometers (Dyer. 1889). When the down is fluffy, then there will be fine weather, but when it is limp and contracted, then there will be rain (Swainson. 1873). (Weather Clock is one of its Somerset names (Macmillan) ). The flower heads close directly rain falls, or just before, and always before dew-fall (Rohde. 1936). Or you could tell the time (the multitude of "clock" names, like Timeteller, or Clock-flower, etc., is witness to that belief). Or the dandelion globe will tell children at what age they will get married (Harland & Wilkinson. 1867); it will tell them, too, as in Brittany and Beauce, how many years they have to live, or, as in Côte-du-Nord, how many children they will have (Sebillot), or, as in Kentucky, the number of days until they will get a whipping (Thomas & Thomas). American children will blow a dandelion globe three times. If all the seeds blow away it is sign that their mother does not want them (Bergen. 1899). Another American divination is to award each puff to blow off the seeds a letter of the alphabet; the letter which ends the blowing is the initial of the name of the person they will marry (Bergen. 1896). Yet another is to take note of the direction in which the seeds fly when you blow it, and that is the direction in which to seek your fortune.

Dandelion is a thoroughly useful plant. Not many know that the roots will give a red dye (Dimbleby), but most have at least heard of its use as a food. They were included with the bitter Passover herbs, and the large leaves are certainly bitter (Evelyn. 1699 said they should be "macerated in several Waters, to extract the Bitterness"), but the young ones are not, so it was regarded as "one of the most wholesome spring saladings" (Rohde. 1936). American Indians took full advantage of it as food. The Meskwaki, for instance, cooked them with pork (H H Smith. 1928), and the Menomini cooked them with vinegar made from the last run of sap in the maple tree (H H Smith. 1923). No wonder it was important, for it is credited with having much greater fuel value (calories) than the same bulk of most other standard greens (Sanford).

Dandelion coffee, made by roasting the roots, is well known, and so are other drinks made from the plant, best of all dandelion wine. Fen people liked to gather their dandelions for wine-making on May Day, for these, they said, make the best wine (Porter. 1969). Wiltshire people merely said they should be picked before 24 May (Wiltshire), but the traditional time is St George's Day (23 April). It has always been popular, and quite extraordinary claims have been made for it, as for example this extract from The Times of 23 January 1951: "Mr William Weeds, of Caunsall, near Kidderminster, who was 100 last November, died yesterday. For 75 years he had taken a daily glass of dandelion wine, and contended that this beverage enabled his grandmother to live to be 103".

It has been known for a long time that the bitter extract from dandelion roots, preferably dug up in the autumn, has a medicinal effect on the liver (Schauenberg & Paris). Indeed, "if you could ever dig up the whole root ... without breaking it or leaving the end in the ground, it would cure anything. But there is a little milky bit at the very end of it you can never get. It breaks off, or the devil bites it away, they say, the way people won't get the cure", Gill. 1963 was told. Dandelion is an ingredient of many popular American "bitters" and "blood purifiers" (Lloyd), naturally used by the Indians as well. There are plenty of examples of similar British use. Dandelion flowers for "the blood", they say in Warwickshire (R Palmer. 1976). In the Scottish Highlands, it used to be the commonest tonic (Grant). With its iron (and copper) content, it must be good for treating anaemia, and skin complaints, too. It was certainly used for anaemia in Ireland (and for consumption), and sometimes nettle leaves were added, as in Dorset, to make a tonic drink for the blood (Dacombe). There are similar records in Welsh popular medicine (Trevelyan), and in published herbals, as in Thornton, in the early 19th century. Dandelion tea was the usual liver medicine, and dandelion coffee is used, too. Take the roots gathered in autumn, for in the spring they are almost flavourless. Both the tea and the coffee are said to be good for indigestion as well (Browning), and feature in American folk medicine, too - Alabama people used to take the tea for biliousness, for example (R B Browne), just as Suffolk people did for any stomach pain (V G Hatfield. 1994). Dandelion juice put on the tip of the tongue was an Essex indigestion cure (Newman & Wilson).

A glance at the list of local names will confirm dandelion's diuretic qualities, and it is quite often used deliberately for the purpose. The name Pissa-bed, common enough, although no longer standard English (though pissenlit is still standard French) would shout the fact loudly. German has Pissblume, and Dutch beddepissers, too (Clair). "Children that eat it in the evening experience its diuretic effect, which is the reason that other European nations, as well as ourselves, vulgarly call it Pissabed" (Britten & Holland). Would children have any particular urge to eat dandelions? But it is said that if they even gather the flowers, they will experience the symptoms. Mothers would remove all the dandelions from a child's bunch of wild flowers, and children would tease their fellows by putting the flowers in their pockets (Vickery. 1985). As an indication of the thoroughly contrary nature of superstition, the flowers were given to Fenland children to smell on May Day to inhibit bed-wetting for the next twelve months! (Porter. 1969). Perhaps this is an example of homeopathic magic. But in serious vein, in recent times, Irish country people would brew the leaves, or sometimes the whole plant, roots and all, to increase the flow of urine (P Logan). Hence, of course, its use for gallstones, jaundice, etc., (Schauenberg & Paris); herbalists still prescribe the root tea for stone in the bladder (W A R Thomson. 1978).

The milky juice from the stalks is applied to pimples and spots (Conway), and the flowers, boiled for half an hour in water, give a toilet water to get rid of freckles on the face (Palaiseul). Beware of doing that too often, though. In some parts of France, the result of overuse by young girls would later be that she would have "enfants malingres", i.e., sickly, or ricketty, one of the symptoms of which is just the pale complexion that the mother tried to achieve (Loux). The juice is put on warts in widely separated areas (Rudkin. 1936, Drury. 1991, Polson, Newman & Wilson, Bergen. 1899). Or they rubbed them with a leaf (Gutch & Peacock) (in Somerset they always used to rub dandelion leaves on nettle stings, as well as using dock leaves (Tongue. 1965)). An Irish charm for warts, blending the magical with the practical, was to give one dandelion leaves, three leaves to be eaten on three successive mornings (Dyer. 1889). A stye can be treated, according to another Irish country remedy, by bathing it with the milky juice (P Logan).

Fenland midwives used to give a "pain-killing cake" to women in labour. It was made from wholemeal flour, hemp seed crushed with a rolling pin, crushed rhubarb root, and grated dandelion root. These were mixed to a batter with egg yolk, milk and gin, turned into a tin and baked in a hot oven. At the woman's first groan, a slice of cake would be handed to her (Porter. 1969). Hempseed, rhubarb and gin would have quite an effect, but it is not clear how dandelion fits into the pattern. Some of the receipts seriously offered are mysterious, to say the least. "... Dandelion will staunch blood at the nose, if thou wilt break it, and hold it to the nose that the savour may go into it" (W M Dawson) - that from a 15th century text. Lupton, writing in the middle of the 17th century, recommended an equally odd one - "the herb of dandelion, well sod in water, is counted to be a chief medicine for the joining and knitting of wounds. It is good against ruptures, for them that be broken or bursten". And what should we make of Langham's "bitings venomous, stamp it and apply it"? It sounds as simplistic as the Cumbrian practice of eating dandelion leaves for rheumatism (Newman & Wilson).

Irish country people seem to have made more use of dandelion for medicine than anyone else, or at least there are more records of use. The tea was used for asthma, and a way to "clear" the chest, was to chew the leaves and swallow the juice (P Logan). The recorder went on to say they did the same with ivy leaves. But almost certainly he meant ground ivy, for Lady Wilde. 1890 mentioned a charm for asthma in which the patient had to drink a potion made of dandelion, or of ground ivy, with a prayer said over it before drinking. Dandelion was reckoned to be "good for the heart" in the west of Ireland, and the juice was put on a wound to stop the bleeding (Maloney).

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