#32 Dandelion

Dandelions in a Tree, EKS


The dandelion, Taraxacum offifinale, is another member of the daisy family, Asteraceae. All sixty varieties have a composite flower head, a bright yellow mop of rayed petals that produce a tufted ball of fragile seeds, hollow stems with milky sap, green toothed leaves in a rosette form at the base, and a long, annoyingly sturdy tap root (Hogan 1400). The name is a corruption of French dent de lion -- lion’s tooth -- which is said to refer to the shape of leaves, or to the whiteness of the root, or to the golden color of the petals (Folkard 166).  Despite its status as a nuisance weed, all parts of the plant are edible, and it has one of the longest lists of food-related and medicinal uses in the botanical pharmacology. The roots can be roasted for a coffee substitute, the leaves eaten in salads, and the flowers made into wine.  Dandelion tea is said to help the liver; its efficacy as a diuretic has led to it being called the equivalent of piss-flower in many languages (Watts 100).  Like the daisy it is thermostatic, and its regular opening and closing times caused it to be referred to as the “shepherd’s clock” (Folkard 166). Also, like the daisy, it was and still is used to foretell the future; dispersed like a cloud of tiny parachutes, the fragile puffball of seeds is blown to make a wish, to discover a lover’s name, to foretell the number of one’s children or the length of one’s life. [1]  In the Victorian language of flowers it was known as “Rustic Oracle” (Greenaway 15).

Dandelions make eight appearances in Woolf’s writing, almost always in the role of randomly sown weeds. The only time she refers to them in her life writing is when she and Leonard are first putting the garden into order at Monk’s House in September of 1919 when she confides to her diary her pleasure in “uprooting thick dandelions and groundsel” (D1 302). Otherwise her references tend to emphasize the airy, accidental dispersal of the seeds. In the early short story, “The Mysterious Case of Miss V” (1906), a list of “fantastic expedition[s]” includes setting out in an omnibus “to visit the shadow of a bluebell in Kew Gardens when the sun stands halfway down the sky! or to catch the down from a dandelion! at midnight in a Surrey meadow” (CSF 31). In a 1918 TLS review “Caution and Criticism,” she presents dandelions as evanescent and unimportant, rebuking the unsystematic reportage of a literary study in which the author pronounces “carefully balanced judgments upon books which, so far as we can see, no more deserve description than the dandelions of the year before last” (E2 304).  A similar sense of accidental unremarkableness accompanies her account of “Eccentrics” (1919) who are “like a weed picked by mistake with the roses, or a dandelion that the wind has wafted to a bed primly sown with prize specimens of the double aster” (E3 39).

On a couple of occasions, Woolf simply notes the dandelion’s nuisance status. In “A Letter to a Lady in Paraguay” (1922) she refers rather ironically to “nature’s genius” which “creates the cabbage and the dandelion and smothers all the hedgerows with foaming cow’s parsley in June” (E6 393).  In Orlando, the perfection of his patron’s lawn, whose “turf had for three centuries known neither dandelion nor dock weed” is one of the rural tranquilizers that causes Nick Greene to flee back to the noise of Fleet Street (O 68).

Only Woolf’s last two mentions of the dandelions as “clocks” invoke any of its many folkloric allusions. Her review of Augustine Birrell’s Collected Essays (1930) emphasizes the writer’s natural grace: “How lightly and easily he casts the line of his sentence! ‘gentle as is the breath with which a child disperses a dandelion-clock’ he says in his preface” (E5 148). And in Between the Acts, another “natural,” the village idiot Albert, signifies the passage of time by puffing out his cheeks to mime blowing a “dandelion clock” (BTA 60).

"Clocks" Color-reduction Woodcut by EKS

[1] Dandelions in Magic & Superstition. http://www.gardensablaze.com/HerbDandelionMag.htm

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About 98 Flowers

Welcome to the Virginia Woolf Herbarium.  For many years I have been researching and writing about Virginia Woolf and parks, gardens, and fl...