Updated: Mar 29, 2021
I am keen to return home and rest, but as I round the bend to look down on Schiefling, I see a sight that immediately lifts my spirits: as far as the eye can see the fields are filled with dandelions, hundreds and thousands of them.
I have been led to believe, along with almost everyone else, that there is nothing more pernicious and evil than a dandelion. Currently, even the Royal Horticultural Society’s website, while briefly acknowledging that the dandelion is an important source of nectar for insects and bees, has a page of more than five hundred words on the chemical eradication of this ‘weed.’[i] One of the first and most notorious organic compounds used as a pesticide on such weeds is DDT, which was created by Swiss scientist Paul Hermann Müller, for which he received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1948. It was used extensively and indiscriminately during the Second World War, primarily by the US military. The mosquito was a key target, as malaria was a vital issue, not only causing fatalities but incapacitating whole battalions. In his book The Long Road Home, Ben Shephard relates that in 1943 DDT was used to disinfect typhus victims to eradicate the louse that lives on the body, the chemical having first been tested on inmates at Maison Carrée prison in Algiers and then on the local villagers. After this, it was successfully used in Naples in January 1944 when 1.3 million people were deloused, and within three weeks the typhus epidemic was mastered, with almost no fatalities; this prevented a repeat of death by disease that occurred after the First World War, and in this regard, the benefits of DDT seemed miraculous. Newspaper journalists began to laud DDT, saying that it seemed ‘almost too good to be true.’[ii] This paved the way for the release in 1944 of DDT for civilian use, and this escalated exponentially. In the late 1940s images of smiling babies were used imploring housewives to use DDT on walls, floors, doors, and even kitchen surfaces to kill flies and mosquitos. The chemical industry and the world of advertising have altered our relationship to all manner of flora and fauna. Today, the dandelion especially is targeted: everywhere from Facebook to YouTube, adverts for Roundup pop up unwarranted and often accompanied by animated dandelions which are out of control and seem capable of driving the suburban gardener into a frenzy.[iii]
Many of these poisons are lethal, radiating deep into the soil to eradicate even the root of this wildflower. Garden centres have row upon row of these harmful poisons, which are still bought and often applied without any consideration of harmful and drastic effects they have on the delicate ecosystems that our gardens are host to and their carcinogenic properties. The word ‘weed’ comes from the Old English word ‘weod’, which Chambers dictionary glosses as meaning simply ‘a herb’. Sadly, the word ‘weed’ now has only negative connotations: ‘a useless plant of small growth, any plant growing where it is not wanted by man… useless, troublesome… obnoxious.’[iv] What’s in a name, indeed?
It is not only the sight of so many dandelions that has altered my perception. Since I moved to Austria, I have been reintroduced to the dandelion: Katie and I have taken to picking the new young tender dandelion leaves for salads when they first appear in the meadows around our house. When the gorgeous yellow flowers appear Katie makes dandelion honey with the petals, just as her mother used to do. It’s a slow but simple process: the plucked petals must be boiled with water, sugar and lemon juice. We often have free-range eggs from a local farm with fresh herbs and a selection of ‘weeds’ from the garden, all of which have health benefits. We pick them, chop them finely and sprinkle them on to our food, and include not only dandelion leaves but also young, tender Giersch leaves,[v] Gundelrede[vi] and Tausendgüldenkraut.[vii]
Dandelion roots are also useful because they can be ground up and boiled with water to be used as a coffee substitute; in fact, this was a common practice during the Second World War. The dandelion has many beneficial properties. It is suitable when correctly prepared as a purifier for the blood and to normalise blood circulation, and helps to prevent rheumatism, gout and urinary tract infections. We haven’t as yet used our dandelions for dyeing our clothes, but perhaps even that will one day come.
Other than its health benefits, the dandelion is the only flower that represents the three celestial bodies of the sun, moon and stars. The yellow flower resembles the sun, the creamy-white puffball of seeds resembles the moon, and the dispersing seeds when they are blown away in the wind scatter like stars. The dandelion flower opens to greet the morning and closes in the evening to go to sleep. When rain is approaching dandelions withdraw, so they can be used as a warning of impending bad weather. Lastly, there is the dandelion horn: cut a flower with a long stem and remove the head, then blow down the stem, and you will be amazed at the volume and timbre of this little instrument. When I mention this to Katie, she is reminded that she used to annoy her little brother with dandelion horns, blowing them directly into his ear.
Having stood gaping at the sight of hundreds and thousands of yellow dandelions and white seed heads before me, I am reminded of reality when it begins to rain. It is the first rain I have had on any of my walks, another reminder that I am not walking in Britain, for surely there I could not have already completed eighteen thirteen-mile walks without being drenched a few times. Suddenly my tiredness returns; I search for my Pac-a-mac and walk quickly home.
This is an extract from Walking into Alchemy: The Transformative Power of Nature. Please visit www.ameliamarriette.com/my-book
[i] Royal Horticultural Society website: https://www.rhs.org.uk/Advice/Profile?PID=1012 [ii] Ben Shephard, The Long Road Home, (Bodley Head, 2010), p.46. [iii] Roundup© was invented by the organic chemist, John E. Franz. Franz discovered the herbicide glyphosate while working at Monsanto Company in 1970. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_E._Franz [iv] Chambers Concise Dictionary, G.W. Davidson, M.A. Seaton, J. Simpson (Editors), W & R Chambers, 1988 edition, p. 1134 [v] Aegopodium podagraria, or common greed, is a perennial herbaceous plant from the Umbelliferae, (Apiaceae) family. [vi] Glechoma hederacea, or gill-over-the-ground, catsfoot, or field balm, is from the Lamiaceae family and is related to mint. [vii] Centaurium, or Feverfew, God hyssop, Lauri herb, from the Gentian family (Gentianaceae).