Dandelions

This column first appeared in The Environmentor, spring 2009.
Shawondasee and the Golden Girl

Shawondasee, the South Wind, was much gentler than his brothers of the East, West, and North. He liked to go softly and enjoy the beauty of the world. He was also rather shy.

So one spring day when he looked across the meadow and saw a lovely maiden dressed in green, with amazing hair as yellow as the sun, he didn’t dare rush to her side. He just admired her from afar, and that night went to sleep promising himself, “Tomorrow I’ll go introduce myself.”

The next day Shawondasee saw her again, but he hesitated. “I mustn’t be too bold. I don't want to scare her.” Each night he went to bed sighing over her beauty, and hoping that the next day he’d have courage to ask her to marry him.

But one morning he could hardly see her bright hair. Had she pulled her green shawl over her head? If she was upset about something, this was not the day to visit her.

And the next day he found that he had waited too long. Her hair had turned completely white, like an old woman! Shawondesee sighed mightily with grief and disappointment. The air filled with silvery puffs like thistledown, and when he looked again, she had disappeared.

Poor Shawondasee! He had fallen in love with Dandelion!

 

Dandelion facts

The folktale doesn't explain "why" South Wind or Dandelion acts as they do, but it does remind us to pay attention to them. What do they "really" do?

Ethnographer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft reported hearing this story from Chippewa/Ojibwa Indians in the 1830’s, but it must have been a fairly new tale then--because dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) are not native to North America. They arrived with European colonists.

Originally from Eurasia, dandelions spread throughout Europe long ago, grown for food and medicine. The young leaves and sweet flower petals made tasty salads. Bigger leaves were cooked like mustard greens or spinach, but gave more iron and calcium (as well as vitamins A and C). They were valued as one of the first fresh, nutritious vegetables of spring! The flowers made a bright yellow wine and were used as dye. People thought the leaves and roots could cure liver and kidney problems. So Spanish, French, German, and English settlers brought dandelion seeds when they came to North America. Seeds also probably stowed away in ships’ ballast rocks, or in seed grain.

Soon the wind-blown dandelion seeds escaped from settlements. Dandelions were one of the alien plants which the Native people recognized as a sign that foreigners were moving into their territory. Shawondasee’s blonde sweetheart was not one of his own people.

He didn’t notice the jagged points on her green clothes. “Dents de lion” (lion’s teeth), the French name for the plant, had given rise to her English name.

Shawondasee never married his Golden Girl, but she still had many children! Although dandelion pollen is a valuable early spring food for bees, the flowers don’t need it to set seed. Each ovum develops into a seed embryo on its own. (Our dandelions are triploid obligate gametophytic apomicts.)

How can dandelions spread so fast? A single plant can produce over 5000 single-seeded fruits, each with its own downy parachute to carry it for hundreds of meters on the wind. They grow in almost any soil, and can wait up to seven years to sprout--if insects and small birds don’t eat them first. Their deep taproots help them colonize bare soil, breaking up hard-packed clay and drawing mineral nutrients up to the surface while their leaves prevent erosion. Later, the decaying roots provide channels for percolating water and for other seedlings' roots. Once other plants become established, they shade out the foreign dandelion.

Most American gardeners consider dandelions to be weeds (which just means they’re not wanted) but in other countries their leaves are carefully grown as vegetables, and the roots are roasted as a coffee substitute--like New Orleans chicory, which is a cousin. Teraxacum officinale now grows in all 50 states and most Canadian provinces.

 

DANDELION ACTIVITIES

1. Notice how dandelion flower stems adjust to the height of their surroundings: flat to the ground in trampled turf, a foot or more tall in long grass. The long-stemmed ones are best for braiding into garlands.

2. The flower stem is solid just beneath the flowerhead, but hollow below. If you pick off the flower, you can make a circle by tucking the narrow solid end into the hollow tube. How long a chain can you make by linking circles?

3. Use the flowerheads discarded in 3 to make yellow color by squashing the petals onto paper. The leaves make green color. What else can you use for different colors?

4. Observe and report: do dandelions stay open at night? On cloudy days?

5. Carefully pick a very ripe seed head. Can you blow off all the seeds with one puff? How many did you get?

6. How deep do the roots go? What’s the widest root you can find? Imagine what happens when a tiny seed sprouts in a tiny crack in pavement, and grows this big.

 

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Folktale Sources:

“Meadow dandelion” (Chippewa) in The Red Indian Fairy Book: For the Children's Own Reading and for Story-Tellers, by Frances Jenkins Olcott, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1917.

“Shawondasee and the Golden Girl” (Ojibwa) in Hidden Stories in Plants by Anne Pellowski:, MacMillan 1990.

Both of these seem to be based on a vignette in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha, 1855, which was based on Henry Rowe Schoolcraft's Algic Researches and History, Condition and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States, first published in 1839.