Wet Sheets and Lions Teeth

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Mike is a South African gardener and freelance writer who now lives and works in the south of France where he writes for many international magazines on various aspects of French culture; covers various horticultural events and visits many famous gardens.

Wets sheets and Taraxacum officinale (Credit: Wikepedia)

His particular interest is in the folklore and myth that exists behind many plants, and providing in depth articles that offer more than just a ‘how to grow’ article.

Taraxacum officinale is a common weed originating in Eurasia but now widespread in most temperate parts of the world. It has many common English names including cankerwort and milk-witch but is almost always referred to as dandelion when speaking English.

Here in France we get them in their hundreds of thousands and otherwise boring fields can metamorphose over night into great yellow plains come the spring.

 If you are one of those people who are a lawn fanatic this can very quickly lead you down the road to insanity and most of us gardeners have just learned to accept them here. Those that don’t soon start to develop a twitch and eventually get taken away by little men in white coats.

The dandelion is an herbaceous perennial that produces a long tap root which is nigh on impossible to pull out once it is established. Its round fluffy seed heads, often called blow balls, can produce over 100 seeds per flower and up to 5000 seeds or florets per plant. Each of these may be carried several hundred meters on the wind and remains viable for many years. Perhaps now you see why we try not the odd one or two bother us when they pop up in the lawn.

The word dandelion is a derivative of the French dent de lion or lions tooth. Interestingly in France you never hear it referred to by that name and it is known throughout the country as pissenlit or wet your bed. This stems from the fact that the flower heads are often picked here and mixed with various concoctions of alcohol and sugar before being left to ferment. The resulting fortified wine has a flavor not dissimilar to port with a reputedly diuretic after effect. The French are incredibly adept at turning the mundane into wonderful food or drink of one kind or another and each spring my wife can be seen traipsing across the fields where she collects the small yellow flower heads by the kilo.

Most horticulturists like to complicate things by using Latin names for the plants they work with. Not having been deemed bright enough to study Latin whilst at school I always battled with the terminology at horticultural college. I find the common names generally much more colourful and easy to remember although I understand the need for a universal taxonomy.

I will leave it to others to debate the ins and outs of what name this plant should go under. Right now I have some bed linen to wash.

This is a preview of the piece published in Gardening in South Africa, a leading magazine for South Africa’s vast and keen gardening community.

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