This section is from the book "Nature's Garden", by Neltje Blanchan. Also available from Amazon: Nature's Garden; An Aid To Knowledge Of Our Wild Flowers And Their Insect Visitors.
Flower-head - Solitary, golden yellow, 1 to 2 in. across, containing 150 to 200 perfect ray florets on a flat receptacle at the top of a hollow, milky scape 2 to 18 in. tall. Leaves: From a very deep, thick, bitter root; oblong to spatulate in outline, irregularly jagged.
Preferred Habitat - Lawns, fields, grassy waste places.
Flowering Season - Every month in the year.
Distribution - Around the civilized world.
"Dear common flower that grow'st beside the way, Fringing the dusty road with harmless gold.
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, with lavish hand;
Though most hearts never understand To take it at God's value, but pass by The offered wealth with unrewarded eye."
Let the triumphant Anglo-Saxon with dreams of expansion that include the round earth, the student of sociology who wishes an insight into cooperative methods as opposed to individualism, the young man anxious to learn how to get on, parents with children to be equipped for the struggle for existence, business men and employers of labor, all sit down beside the dandelion and take its lesson to heart. How has it managed without navies and armies - for it is no imperialist - to land its peaceful legions on every part of the civilized world and take possession of the soil? How can this neglected wayside composite weed triumph over the most gorgeous hothouse individual on which the horticulturist expends all the science at his command; to flourish where others give up the struggle defeated; to send its vigorous offspring abroad prepared for similar conquest of adverse conditions wherever met; to attract myriads of customers to its department store, and by consummate executive ability to make every visitor unwittingly contribute to its success? Any one who doubts the dandelion's fitness to survive, should humble himself by spending days and weeks on his knees, trying to eradicate the plant from even one small lawn with a knife, only to find the turf starred with golden blossoms, or, worse still from his point of view, hoary with seed balloons,- the following spring.
Deep, very deep, the stocky bitter root penetrates where heat and drought affect it not, nor nibbling rabbits, moles, grubs of insects, and other burrowers break through and steal. Cut off the upper portion only with your knife, and not one, but several, plants will likely sprout from what remains; and, however late in the season, will economize stem and leaf to produce flowers and seeds, cuddled close within the tuft, that set all your pains at naught. " Never say die " is the dandelion's motto. An exceedingly bitter medicine is extracted from the root of this dandelion, formerly known as T. officinale. Likewise are the leaves bitter. Although they appear so early in the spring, they must be especially tempting to grazing cattle and predaceous insects, the rosettes remain untouched, while other succulent, agreeable plants are devoured wholesale. Only Italians and other thrifty Old-World immigrants, who go about then with sack and knife collecting the fresh young tufts, give the plants pause; but even they leave the roots intact. When boiled like spinach or eaten with French salad dressing, the bitter juices are extracted from the leaves or disguised - mean tactics by an enemy outside the dandelion's calculation. All nations know the plant by some equivalent for the name dent de lion - lion's tooth, which the jagged edges of the leaves suggest.
Presently a hollow scape arises to display the flower above the surrounding grass. Bridge builders and constructing engineers know how yielding and economical, yet how invincibly strong, is the hollow tube. March winds may buffet and bend the dandelion's stem without harm. How children delight to split this slippery tube, and run it in and out of their mouths until curls form! At the top of the scape is a double involucre of narrow, green, leaf-like scales similar to what all composites have. Half the involucre bends downward to protect the flower from crawling pilferers, half stands erect to play the role for the community of florets within that the calyx does for individual blossoms. When it is time to close the dandelion shop, business being ended for the day, this upper-half of the involucre protects it like the heavy shutters merchants put up at their windows.
Seated on a fleshy receptacle, not one flower, but often two hundred minute, perfect florets generously cooperate. " In union there is strength " is another motto adopted, not only by the chicory clan, but by the entire horde of composites. Each floret of itself could hope for no attention from busy insects; united, how gorgeously attractive these disks of overlapping rays are! Doubtless each tiny flower was once a five-petalled blossom, for in the five teeth at the top and the five lines are indications that once distinct parts have been welded together to form a more showy and suitable corolla. Each floret insures cross-pollination from insects crawling over the head, much as the minute yellow tubes in the centre of a daisy do (see p. 271). Quantities of small bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, and beetles - over a hundred species of insects - come seeking the nectar that wells up in each little tube, and the abundant pollen, which are greatly appreciated in early spring, when food is so scarce. In rainy weather and at night, when its benefactors are not flying, the canny dandelion closes completely to protect its precious attractions. Because the plant, which is likely to bloom every month in the year, may not always certainly reckon on being pollinated by insects, each neglected floret will curl the two spreading, sticky branches of its style so far backward that they come in contact with any pollen that has been carried out of the tube by the sweeping brushes on their tips. Occasional self-fertilization is surely better than setting no seed at all when insects fail. Not a chance does the dandelion lose to " get on."
After flowering, it again looks like a bud, lowering its head to mature seed unobserved. Presently rising on a gradually lengthened scape to elevate it where there is no interruption for the passing breeze from surrounding rivals, the transformed head, now globular, white, airy, is even more exquisite, set as it is with scores of tiny parachutes ready to sail away. A child's breath puffing out the time of day, a vireo plucking at the fluffy ball for lining to put in its nest, the summer breeze, the scythe, rake, and mowing machines, sudden gusts of winds sweeping the country before thunderstorms - these are among the agents that set the flying vagabonds free. In the hay used for packing they travel to foreign lands in ships, and, once landed, readily adapt themselves to conditions as they find them. After soaking in the briny ocean for twenty-eight days - long enough for a current to carry them a thousand miles along the coast - they are still able to germinate.
The Dwarf Dandelion, Cynthia, or Virginia Goatsbeard (Ado-pogon Virginicum) - formerly Krigia Virginica - with from two to six long-peduncled, flat, deep yellow or reddish-orange flower heads, about an inch and a half across, on the summit of its stem from May to October, elects to grow in moist meadows, woodlands, and shady rocky places. How it glorifies them! From a tuffet of spatulate, wavy-toothed or entire leaves, the smooth, shining, branching stem arises, bearing a single oblong, clasping leaf below the middle. Particularly beautiful is its silvery seed-ball, the pappus consisting of about a dozen hairlike bristles inside a ring of small oblong scales, on which the seed sails away. Range, from Massachusetts to Manitoba, south to Georgia and Kansas.
A charming little plant, the Carolina Dwarf Dandelion or Krigia (A. Carolinianum), once confounded with the above, sends up several unbranched scapes from the same tuffet. It blooms in dry, sandy soil from April to August, from Maine and Minnesota to the Gulf States.
Like a small edition of Lowell's "dear common flower" is the Tall Dandelion, or Autumnal Hawkbit (Leontodon autumnale), its slender, wiry, branching scape six inches to two feet high, terminated by several flower-heads, each on a separate peduncle, which is usually a little thickened and scaly just below it. Only forty to seventy five-toothed ray florets spread in a flat golden disk from an oblong involucre. They close in rainy weather and at night. From June to November, in spite of its common name, it blooms in fields and along roadsides, its brownish seed-plumes rapidly following; but these are produced at the frightfully extravagant cost of over two hundred thousand grains of pollen to each head, it is estimated. The Greek generic name, meaning lion's tooth, refers to the shape of the lobes of the narrowly oblong leaves in a tuft at the base. Range, from New Jersey and Ohio far northward. Naturalized from Europe and Asia.