Taraxacum agg. (Dandelions)

Plant of the week
Picture of Taraxacum agg.

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t know what a dandelion looked like, even in these times of ‘lost words’ and disconnection from nature. These ubiquitous plants, hailed by some, hated as weeds by others, hide a dark secret: in the UK they consist of nearly 250 different ‘microspecies’. So far only about 80 have been identified in Sussex, although Dr Tim Rich has estimated that there may be as many as 130. 

Picture of Taraxacum agg.

Although they attract insects, it’s not for pollination. Very few produce pollen in any great quantity and the vast majority produce seeds by a process known as apomixis. More specifically, agamospermous apomixis. More specifically still, diplosporic gametophytic apomixis. Essentially this means that the seeds are produced without fertilisation and are genetically identical to the parent plant (in other words, a clone). They are native to Eurasia and North America but are now naturalised around the globe through human agency.

Picture of Taraxacum agg.

Identifying the different microspecies is something of a dark art, mastered by a handful of dedicated taraxacologists (and there really are only a handful). The current BSBI referee is Prof. A. J. Richards, one of the authors of the BSBI Handbook (currently on offer!), but Tim Rich also offers expertise in the form of additions to the Plant Crib which can be found on the BSBI website. In Stace there is a key to the nine ‘Sections’ used by Dudman & Richards in the Handbook. To identify a plant you need to choose a ‘good specimen’ in March or April. You then need to use a variety of features. Even then, there is so much variation within even a single species that confidence can be elusive.

Picture of Taraxacum agg.

Despite the problems they are the perfect ‘lockdown’ group as nearly everyone should be able to go out and find a few plants within allowed limits. It can be rewarding simply to consider a handful to try to decide whether they are the same species or different. Tim Rich reckons that even in a modest garden several can be present. And even if you don’t want to attempt placing the plants in a Section, they can be used to hone one’s botanical descriptive skills by trying to write down each plant’s vital statistics using all the jargon you know. 

Picture of Taraxacum agg.

If anyone fancies learning more there’s an opportunity this weekend courtesy of one of the UK’s up and coming young botanists, Joshua Styles (@joshual951 on Twitter). He’s running an Introduction to Dandelions via a workshop on Zoom. It will be recorded and available afterwards for viewing on his YouTube channel.

Picture of Taraxacum agg.

The name ‘dandelion’ comes from the french ‘dents-de-lion’ – teeth of the lion. A reference to the toothed leaves. Most of the folk names relate to the diuretic properties of the plant when consumed: Jack-piss-the-bed, Pissy beds, Wet-the-bed, Pishamoolag, Wet weed. Or to the fruiting head, commonly known as a ‘clock’: Clock flower, Farmers’ clocks, Old man’s clock, Fairy clocks. There can’t be many who didn’t tell the time as children by seeing how many blows it took to remove all the seeds and pappus from the receptacle. Do children still do this?

Picture of Taraxacum agg.

All parts of the plant can be eaten. The roots can be dried and used to make an alternative to instant coffee or combined with Burdock to make Dandelion and Burdock. The leaves can be added to salads or fried. The flowers can also be eaten raw in salads or used to make dandelion wine. The seeds have even been collected to give to pet birds.