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An illustration of a dandelion flower (Taraxacum officinale).

Published by Ms. Eugen Köhler, 1887/© Purix Verlag Volker Christen / Bridgeman Images

Thelma Fayle is a writer based in Victoria.

In her fun-loving Newfoundland accent, the Camosun College herbology instructor announced: “For your homework, I want you to go for a walk and figure out which plant is willing to speak to you.” I rolled my eyes and silently lamented the fact that I had already paid for the 10-week course.

The professor may have been “out there,” but as an ever-the-obedient student, I did the homework anyway.

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I was too much of a Montreal city gal to even recognize the small yellow plant that was suddenly everywhere. Maybe it was “speaking” to me. I was disappointed to be spoken to by a homely thing rather than some handsome Red Rose with a British Accent.

After trying to ignore the ubiquitous plant, I finally plucked and shoved the bloom in my wallet to bring to class for identification. The instructor, Carol McGrath, took the flaccid flower and looked at me long enough to realize I was plain ignorant about plants. She shocked me by waving the wilted thing around as she launched into a lively lecture.

“Dandelions are one powerful plant,” she began in her loud-and-lilting voice. Two hours later she ended the lesson. “If we listen carefully, this plant could give us an opportunity to understand a voice of the Earth,” she said.

That was 30 years ago, and I have loved dandelions ever since.

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Ramona Kaminskas, at 20 months old, blows seeding dandelions in sunny spell on May 21, 1984. Bright yellow dandelions capture the imaginative spirit of children everywhere.

Franz Maier/The Globe and Mail

Bright yellow dandelions and their popular puffballs speak to children everywhere. Even with their big jagged green teeth, the cheerful plant captures the imaginative spirit of a child. But before long, a menacing and sinister North American notion takes hold: Dandelions are “invasive” and therefore it is perfectly fine to detest and destroy these bee-friendly plants with millions of litres of chemicals every year – killing unknown numbers of migrating birds as well.

In Gerard’s Herbal, a 400-year-old botany tome, dandelions are described as “highly valued” and full of iron, calcium, vitamins C, A, and folic acid. They contain 25 times more vitamin A than tomato juice (14,000 IU per 100 grams of raw greens).

Thought to have evolved 30 million years ago, these micromasterpieces of evolution have a history of helping people as food and medicine. The literal translation of “Taraxacum officinale,” the hard-to-pronounce botanical name, is “the official remedy for disorders.”

For centuries, parents around the world welcomed leafy spring dandelion crowns as healthy greens for their families. They respected and heeded the dandelion dialect and artfully gathered and prepared the edible, familiar plant: including flowers, leaves and long fleshy roots that can extend several feet into the soil. (Likely why dandelions are called “Nail in the Earth” in China.) The Romans ate dandelion salads and stews while the Celts were known for their dandelion brews. The French call it “piss-en-lit” (pee the bed) for its diuretic properties and also dent-de-lion (tooth of the lion) for the shape of its leaf. When esteemed Canadian geologist George M. Dawson was in Victoria in 1875, he noted in his journals that dandelions had been recently introduced.

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The persistent perennial requires no maintenance and grows best in “disturbed soil” – a good description of much of our planet.

In search of a broader, dandelion-ologist perspective, I spoke to a variety of people including an ethnobotanist, a highly respected Canadian environmentalist, a master gardener, a pharmacist, a landscape designer, three children, a Croatian grandmother, an Italian grandfather, a beekeeper, a Canadian backyard gardener, a professional gardener from the famed Butchart Gardens, an elderly Chinese herbalist, a Hawaiian horticulturalist and a Maritime herbologist.

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Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), Liebig card, early 20th century, from a series on flying seeds.

Look and Learn / Bridgeman Images

We mulled: Might Canadians be willing to anticipate the inevitable evolution of the 21st century urban gardener, cook and lover of plants and planet? Could there be pockets of weed tolerance in Canada – non-cannabinoid that is! (The term “weed” is a relative concept.)

The master gardener and the landscape designer shook their heads. “Hopeless,” they said. “Too much negative marketing about dandelions have had a cumulative and likely irreversible effect.”

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Passing a few obligatory pesticide-bans is one thing; but shifting the appreciation spotlight to a 99-per-center, working-class blossom? If only there was a way to ignite the power of social sympathy for a more balanced take on an unreasonably classed “underdog” in the stunning biodiversity of flowers.

Could we begin to explore productive uses for that bitter milky juice described in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a remedy for intermitting Fevers” in 1732? Surprisingly, even though clinical studies have demonstrated the beneficial actions of dandelion on the liver and on immune enhancement activity, including antiviral effects related to influenza, the plant remains little studied. In spite of being found to be extremely safe in its long history of use, we have scant understanding of the wondrous solutions the bitter dandelion might offer our sugared-up world.

For my part, I have cultivated a tiny garden patch that supplies dark green dandelion leaves that become emerald specks when chopped into my morning oatmeal. Visiting children have been introduced to peanut butter and dandelion sandwiches and willing adults are fed dandelion muffins.

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A print dated 1882 shows a young girl blowing on a dandelion that has gone to seed. On verso is a hollyhocks stem with blossoms and the message 'St. Valentine's Day.'

Library of Congress

If you google it, you will find there isn’t a single, high-end book about dandelions on the market. The absence of an elegant publication on an extraordinarily useful ancient plant is surprising. Especially considering thousands of glossy, expensive, picture-filled, over-the-top, coffee-table-style titles about roses continue to be published and purchased. In the past decade I have proposed the idea of writing a well-researched, conversational-style book about dandelions to 30 traditional North American publishers. I’ve had no takers from our rose-centric continent.

According to world-renowned ethnobotanist Nancy Turner, dandelions have a long history of service to humans.

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“Our dislike of dandelions may come from ‘a manicure mentality’ that has been force-fed to us,” Dr. Turner suggests. “If we consider the time and energy we spend, not to mention the pollution we cause by trying to create these green [lawn] monocultures, we begin to see a misdirected perception at play as we are fed images of unrealistic garden perfection.”

Dr. Turner fondly recalls a conversation with the late Adam Szczawinski, a provincial botanist for B.C., with whom she co-authored Edible Garden Weeds of Canada in 1978. “We were imagining the one plant we would want to have with us if we were stranded on an island. Adam chose dandelion – for its versatility.”

In Silent Spring and her other equally brilliant but less-read books, Rachel Carson’s poetic writings beg us to think deeply about the many ways we harm the planet. Her words make me wonder: If the relationship between self and the natural world is governed by reciprocity, as so many Indigenous people teach their children, could Canadians ever learn to love dandelion back?

Would a determined change of heart and mind give us enough ecological insight to consider listening again to the charismatic golden bouquets that spoke to us as toddlers?

Given our COVID-19-influenced consciousness, maybe if we are able to offer dandelion a little more gratitude and a little less generously poured poison, we just might hear the roar of dandelion lore that my instructor Ms. McGrath described.

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We might even be completely inspired by the strong survivor, good role model and symbol of anti-fragility – for our COVID-19-encrusted 21st century.

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Lisi Niesner/Reuters

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