Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

April 23, 2007

The Blowball Openeth

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:20 am

  Catching a Dandelion in the process of waking up should not be a terribly demanding task, so I set myself up to achieve this simple task.  Among the many names for Dandelion that have entered the books, “Clock Flower” is one of them. On that note, one of the books indicated that they are so reliable as to “close against the dews of night by 5:30 pm and open by 7:00 am the next day.”  In other words, they are as reliable as clocks.

  The great Swedish biologist Linnaeus once planted a clock garden about his house in which, it is said, based on the opening and closing of different species, one could tell the time of day.  Four ‘O Clock flowers, for instance, are supposed to open up around 4:00 in the afternoon.  History doesn’t record the fact, but it is very likely that Linnaeus was always late for his appointments – or early.

  Plants are very sensitive to sunlight angle, humidity, and the needs of their pollinators, so are rather type A when it comes to regularity. Of course, that sensitivity to a range of conditions also causes them to heed climate conditions before considering the hands of a clock. I should have taken immediate heed when reading a source that mentioned “Four ‘O Clocks in Florida often don’t open until 8 pm.”  Next to that text was picture of one of the plants still fast asleep at 6 pm. 

  The dandelion was supposed to have been one of those time keeper flowers in Mr. Linnaeus’ garden.  So, I decided to test the 7 am wake-up time theory.  Indeed, yesterday morning I was up by 7 am, stumbled out to check on the dandelion just outside my back door, and found it still sleeping. It was still asleep by 8:05 am. It was open by 9:15 am, but I couldn’t tell you exactly when it spread its buttery face.  Already – even given daylight savings time – the dandelion was exhibiting weekend teenager behavior and not “up and adam” cheeriness.

  The other end of the day was no better.  At 5:30 pm, the flower was still at full spread and dancing in the puffs of wind that swirled around it.  At 6 pm, it was the same story. I checked it at 7, 8, and 9, but still it was wide-eyed and perky.  By 9:30 pm, I should have given up, but I was determined to see this thing through.  I grabbed a flashlight and saw it still laughing at me. I thought I detected a wink, a few bags under the florets, but this thing was definitely not hitting the sack. 

  By 10 pm, it was becoming an obsession.  I stormed out, directed the beam at the mocking bloom and noticed it was starting to fold.  Ten minutes later, it was the same.  Five minutes later, no change – just a slight folding.  By 10:45 pm, it was what I would optimistically call “3/4 closed.”  This assumed that it would “full close” soon.  At 11:15 pm. it hadn’t progressed.  It was time for me to fold up for the night.  I resisted the urge to pluck it and send it into permanent sleep, just to prove my evolutionary superiority. No, I’d see it in the morning.

  Upon rising the next day, I expected that the flower closed overnight (probably seconds after I abandoned it for bed). No, this morning it was full open at 7:00 am.  I don’t think it ever fully closed.

  As a result of this totally unscientific research, I conclude that Dandelions do what they do when they want to do it. They sometimes close on dewy nights, perhaps, but stay open on warm balmy nights like last night.  Right now I don’t really care.  One night of not fitting a pattern is good enough negative evidence for me.  When a clock starts giving you the wrong time, it becomes unreliable and needs fixing. Oddly enough, our main living room clock did go on the fritz yesterday.

  Now that I have eliminated the “Clock Flower” idea, I turn to another dead European science guy for something else.  17th century physician Nicholas Culpepper was aware of the many medical properties of Dandelion. The second part of this plants scientific name, Taraxicum officinale refers to its role in the official herbal medicine texts of the day. I know that the plant can cause sleeplessness, but am fascinated to read Culpepper’s statement that the plant “hath many virtues, which is why the French and Dutch eat them in the Spring.”  He goes on to say that this common herb possesses an “opening quality.”

  Aside from wondering why the Germans don’t eat them in the spring, you are probably wondering what “opening quality” means.  It doesn’t refer to the literal opening of the flower, but instead to- and I quote: “it openeth the passages of the urine in both young and old.”  In other words it makes you go to the bathroom.  This explains the second of the two French words referring to our familiar little weed.

 The first French word is “Dent-de-lion” or literally “Lion’s Teeth.”  This is, of course, the origin of the common name and it refers to the toothed edge of the leaf (although there is some controversy here which I won’t get into). The second is “Pissenlit.”  Yes, this means pretty much what you think it does – it causes you to wet the bed! Ah, so that’s why the Germans were so careful.

  Personally, I’d like to leave this discussion with a few other intriguing Dandelion names such as Milk Witch, Priest’s Crown, Pig Snout, and Blowball. Perhaps I’ll get back to these in a later column. For now, I am eying another Dandelion experiment. This one might prove to be more worthwhile than the sleep endeavor.

  I once found a hand-written recipe for Dandelion Wine tucked within the pages of a commercial fisherman’s journal from 1921. There sandwiched between catches of Bullhead, Carp & Mullett (Suckers) is a recipe just begging to be tried.

  You start with two quarts of flowers (packed), add a one lemon……  This could take a while.

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