On Wednesday 22nd April, Earth Day reaches its 50th birthday, and this year it will be a huge global online event. While immersed in our current combined environmental and health crisis, it’s more important than ever that we seek to address the great imbalances that human activity has generated for our planet. Inspired by Juliet Robertson’s post about celebrating this important event, this post was originally written for Earth Day 2012 to celebrate Britain’s best plant – the Dandelion. I offer it again here to bring its irrepressible optimism and solution-focused resilience into our spirits and thoughts – and to explain just some of the reasons why this fabulous wildflower is the perfect logo for Early Childhood Outdoors!
“This is the most persistent and indomitable of weeds, yet I think the world would be very lonesome without its golden flower-heads and fluffy seed-spheres. Professor Bailey once said that dandelions in his yard were a great trouble to him until he learned to love them, and then the sight of them gave him keenest pleasure.” – Handbook of Nature Study (Comstock, 1986:531)
Yesterday, after many gloomy and rain-filled days, the sun shone all day long. As I drove to and from delivering some training at Early Excellence in Huddersfield, I passed verge after verge stuffed full of uncountable numbers of dancing dandelions, fully open and making the most of that lovely heat and light. What a truly heart-lifting sight an expanse of dandelions is! What stunning plants they are. Why on earth do we have such a negative attitude to them, which we most likely pass on to our children?
I often sing the praises of dandelions as play materials on training courses, and have been eagerly waiting for Dandelion Season here in the UK. I love all the spring flowers, especially primroses having grown up with coppiced woodlands full of them in Kent (mostly developed land now). But my admiration and feelings for the humble dandelion has grown as I’ve become more aware of what spectacular plants they are.
Have you ever noticed how beautiful and complex they are?
Well, they are here now and, like the last few years, it’s a very good year for them again – and long may they stick around! Why are they so wonderful?
- The flower itself is highly complex and incredibly beautiful with the dense centre and delicate outer rim; the green bracts on the underside are also lovely;
- Their yellow colour is the most perfect yellow: strong, luscious and sunshine-filled (unlike the weak and sickly yellow of the acres of rape seed our country is now covered with at this time – have you noticed how it’s taking up residence into our verges too?)
- If you feel the flower, especially with your cheeks or lips, it’s exquisitely soft and cool;
- If you smell the flower, it’s revolting (apparently bees, ants and moths like the early nectar source, but I guess this is to attract fly and beetles with different smell sensitivities to humans…);
- The stem is long, waxy and curiously hollow, and allows great jewellery to be made;
- The white sap from the end of the broken stem, that I was told as a child would make me wet the bed, is intensely bitter and therefore surely unlikely to make children who play with them wet the bed. The French name for the plant pissenlit derives from the strongly diuretic roots – it’s also called Dog’s Lettuce and Mole’s Salad – I’m glad the more Norman name meaning lion’s teeth (dent de lion – from the shape of the leaves) made it into our language though. It makes your fingers sticky and dirt-attracting and is hard to get off – fascinating stuff.
Foraging and collecting is an ancient drive so present still in children’s play
Not only are dandelion flowers wonderful in themselves, there are also the obvious pleasures of the seeding stage with its exquisite structure and its well-known time-telling abilities, and the value of the leaves to rabbits and foraging humans (both leaves and flowers are edible with high vitamin and mineral content). But I most love the way dandelions close up when it’s wet and come out to bask when it’s sunny – such enthusiasm for life and pleasure in the here-and-now moment.
And I especially love the super-abundance of the plant. The epitome of the R-species (with its high seed production and short life-cycle it has a rapid response to opportunity), the dandelion is an opportunist able to take full advantage of every prospect open to it. Is this a metaphor for what we seek to do through early years education in laying the foundations for a resilient, capable, confident and self-assured person who is able to make the most of their abilities and talents as they grow?
Their abundance is key to their play value
And then, above all of this, is the reason I love dandelions professionally – because they make such stunning play materials, especially when available in abundance:
- collecting them feeds our deep foraging instincts, so visible in children’s play;
- arranging them in jam jars is wonderfully satisfying;
- they make excellent jewellery – easier and better than daisies;
- the heads and stems taken apart lend themselves to pattern and picture making (see also the works of Andy Goldsworthy and Marc Pouyet)
- crushing and using the yellow pigment from flowers and green colour from leaves can contribute to much petal perfume and cocktail making. The milky sap is good for potions and spells, and the roots are interestingly vegetable-like;
- they are excellent for garnishing mud pies and other mud kitchen cookery, and have real cooking potential since the whole plant is edible.
Artists and art; children and play
I am enthused to do more to promote these fabulous plants for children’s play – and to ensure that they are ‘designed in’ to any play and educational environment I’m involved with.
I think we’d all benefit from enjoying and honouring our friend the Dandelion this Earth Day 2020 – what do you plan to do to celebrate?
The garnish completes the dish