Gold such as thine ne'er drew the Spanish prow,
Through the primeval hush of Indian seas, Nor wrinkled the lean brow,
Of age, to rob the lover's heart of ease. Tis the spring's largess, which she scatters now To rich and poor alike.
- Lowell's lines "To a Dandelion".
AMONG the works of man whatever is accurately planned and exquisitely made is costly, and therefore uncommon. We are apt to think that the same rule holds in Nature, and that it is only the rare things which are marvellous in design and in construction. But in Nature it is the commonest things which are the most wonderfully made. They are common just because they are so nicely adapted to the conditions of their lives that they are able to starve down and crowd out rivals which are not so well equipped for the battle of existence. Hothouses and horticultural exhibitions can show nothing more wonderful than some vagabond and outcast weeds. A plant which has been fighting the gardeners for many generations has naturally developed more fertility of resource than has its aristocratic relation which the gardeners cosset and coddle. The gamin of the slums can take care of himself and of his little sister, too, at an age when a rich man's son would not be trusted out of his nurse's sight.
The dandelion is a gamin of the fields, sunny-faced, uncared for, and getting but a rough life of it amid cold spring rains and east winds. Like the human gamin it must look out for number one in adverse circumstances, and therefore Mother Nature expended much ingenuity on the outfit of this humble plant before she sent it forth into a hostile world.
The dandelion gets its name not from the golden blossom, with its sweet promise of spring's return, but from the foliage. The word is a corruption of the French dent de lion (lion's tooth), and refers to the jagged edges of the leaves.
Taraxicum is the plant's botanic cognomen, and the nauseous medicine of the same name is extracted from the root. The same bitter principle is in leaves and stalks, but our Irish citizens extract the nauseous taste by long, gentle boiling, and make of dandelion leaves a wholesome and not unpalatable spinach. It is not an uncommon sight in spring to see some native of green Erin equipped with a bag or basket and a big knife, gathering tender dandelion tops, destined to furnish forth the frugal dinner. Our Hibernian friends thus circumvent Nature, and upset all her plans, for the dandelions were filled with bitter juice expressly in order that they should not be eaten. The precaution works well as far as gnawing rabbits and moles or hungry caterpillars are concerned, for we never find dandelion roots bitten by rodents or tunnelled by grubs, and dandelion leaves are never eaten into holes such as disfigure the succulent foliage of the rose. Moreover, the plant enjoys this immunity just at a time when vegetable food is scarce, and the few plants which have ventured up are overwhelmed with attention from everything that is abroad, vegetarian and hungry. Man is the only animal who cooks his food, and owing to this accomplishment his bill of fare is far more extensive than that of his neighbors in feathers and fur, who take things as they find them.
If we pick one of the golden dandelion flowers, we find that the stem is a hollow column, and this structure, as every engineer knows, combines the strictest economy of material with the utmost strength. This contrivance enables the stem to uphold the proportionately large and heavy flower, in spite of all the onslaughts of March winds. "Flower," we have said, but the dandelion is really a community of blossoms. It belongs to the order of Compositae, a large and mixed family, which numbers among its members such flower plebeians as the burdock, groundsel, and ragweed, and on the other hand includes that flower-aristocrat, the dishevelled and expensive chrysanthemum.
For all these flowers have this peculiarity - that what looks like one blossom proves on examination to be a whole floral mass-meeting.
They furnish an object-lesson on the evils of "individualism," and on the advantages to be gained by cooperation. The single flowers of the dandelion are not larger around than small pins. If each were anti-social, and grew upon an independent stalk, in lonely dignity, they would attract no attention from the passing insect. But the yellow florets do not mean to be neglected, so they crowd compactly together, and by joining decorative forces they make quite a brave show in the (as yet) colorless world. There are from one to two hundred tiny blossoms in a single dandelion. Each is like a slender, hollow staff of silver, surmounted by a little flag of gold. The yellow banner finishes in a row of neat little scallops, and from this decoration we can infer a chapter in the flower's history.
Once upon a time the tiny blossom was composed of five leaves or petals, one for each of these scallops. After a while, for good and sufficient reasons doubtless, the little leaves combined into a tube, marked with five seams, or lines of union. Later still it was found that the blossom's purposes would be better furthered if the tube were split open. So it has altered itself into a little flag, which answers somewhat the same purpose as does the red banner of the auctioneer. It advises the passing insect that certain goods can be obtained here in exchange for value received. Inside the floret stands a close ring of stamens with their heads or anthers united so as to form a long, narrow tube. The anthers open towards the centre of the flower, so that this tube is soon filled with pollen.