Dandelions are everywhere. They’re in fields, gardens, dumps, and at the side of pavements (called ‘dog pisses’ in some places for this reason). They pop up in the most established vegetation, or in newly disturbed soil – often first to grow even after wildfires (making them a pioneer species). They’re amongst the earliest bloomers in Spring, and the latest wilters in Winter. They’re found across most lands of the world in every continent, except Antarctica and other deserts.
From the point-of-view of modern snooker-table-esque manicured suburban gardens, dandelions are definitely weeds that must be destroyed at all costs. Plus, how can a plant that is found everywhere be considered beautiful for a garden anyway? Beauty is about the exotic and the rare, surely?
As a sequel to the previous pigeon article, here we’ll take a closer look at dandelions, another character from our March eco-theatre play ‘Are you Happy?’. Just like with pigeons, taking a fresh perspective of these perennial plants can enhance how we experience our daily lives. Dandelions are pretty much the pigeons of the soil in their pervasiveness.
Dandelions can be weeds for farmers and gardeners depending on what it is that they want to grow. But dandelions aren’t just that. They’ve also been considered as flowers, herbs, food and medicine for at least as long as recorded history stretches back.
When ingested by humans, dandelions provide vitamins and antioxidants. Research is also starting to suggest that they might also reduce cholesterol & inflammation, regulate blood sugar, lower blood pressure (as a good source of potassium), help with weight loss (by reducing fat absorption and improving carbohydrate metabolism), reduce risk of certain cancers, boost the immune system, aid digestion, and keep liver & skin healthy.
Ancient Chinese, Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Native American and other peoples have used dandelions because of their medicinal properties for thousands of years. They can be ingested in raw, cooked, tea, wine, capsule, extract or tincture forms. Their roots can also form a delicious coffee substitute.
It’s not just us humans who look decent after a dose of dandelion. In Britain, our 239 dandelion species provide food for over 50 insect species (being a vital pollination-source for the pollinators among these). Many dozens of bird and mammal species directly rely on their stalks and seeds for food too.
So far, we’ve opened some doors that’ll help us perhaps think about dandelions differently. Let’s now get onto seeing them differently. The poetry encoded into their very name can help us with that. ‘Dandelion’ is a corruption of the French term ‘dent de lion’ (lion’s tooth). Their green coarsely-toothed leaves reminded someone long ago of the jungle king’s fangs. It is also likely that when blossomed into their full yellow brilliance, the ~100 florets making up the dandelion’s flower brought to mind a lion’s mane.
When I pass flowered dandelions (especially at the start of spring when they’re the first non-green and brown colour to appear), I see a galaxy of yellow suns lighting up a green cosmic void. And this isn’t even the moment of their life-cycle that my eyes take most delight in.
The flowers close themselves up, looking sad and sorry as if death is imminent. Then they re-bloom, reborn into an effulgence of delicate, intricate seed heads. The author Vladimir Nabokov describes this transition as the moment “most of the dandelions had changed from suns into moons”. There can be up to 400 seed heads on a single dandelion at a given moment, with an average of 15,000 seeds produced by each dandelion in their lifetime. Carried by the wind, a single dandelion seed can fly as far as 100 kilometres.
You’re likely familiar with the ritual of making a wish and blowing on one of these seedy dandelions. The hope is that the wish will come true if you manage to scatter every last seed at once.
There’s a wonderful saying that sums up the central point of this essay:
“When you look at a field of dandelions, you can either see 100 weeds or 10,000 wishes.”
Part of why they might be associated with an ability to conjure up wishes is because of their many ‘magical’ uses over millennia in medicine and healing. This, as well as the otherworldly feeling that comes with witnessing dandelion seeds floating effortlessly in the air, any way the wind blows.
Another association I always have when I see dandelion seeds is one of my all-time favourite stories, Dr Seuss’s ‘Horton Hears a Who’. It is told from the perspective of Horton the elephant. Elephants are symbols for wisdom and understanding and the removal of obstacles, such as with the Hindu elephant-headed god Lord Ganesha.
Horton with his big ears hears a world of people called ‘Whos’, living on a speck of dust at the tip of a seed on a dandelion’s head. Partly because they themselves can’t hear them – and partly because the Whos are so different and tiny compared to them – the kangaroos, eagle and monkeys in Horton’s community not only disbelieve Horton, but actively seek to destroy Horton’s dandelion in spite.
At this point, Horton altruistically displays his elephant-wisdom. He risks ostracization from his own community to defend the Whos ‘through thin and through thick’. He continually asserts that little folks have as much right to live as big folks do, and that ‘a person’s a person, no matter how small’.
Horton’s openness to perceiving a world of people on a speck of dust on a dandelion seed is perhaps inspired by William Blake’s poem ‘Auguries of Innocence’:
“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.”
The thematic comparisons don’t end there with seeing worlds contained within specks and flowers. Blake goes on to link this idea with the injustice of mistreating the downtrodden of 19th century England, including animals, insects, children, prostitutes and gamblers:
“A Dove house filld with Doves & Pigeons
Shudders Hell thr’ all its regions
A dog starvd at his Masters Gate
Predicts the ruin of the State
A Horse misusd upon the Road
Calls to Heaven for Human blood
Each outcry of the hunted Hare
A fibre from the Brain does tear…”
A person is a person – no matter how small, or how different. And to treat a person as less than a person is a grave injustice, including when that person isn’t a human.
We live in a universe where there are untold, unseen worlds of life and complexity contained within every speck of dust – whether we refer to microorganisms, or the particles that make up everything. In 13th century Japan, Buddhist priest Dōgen Zenji wrote about how the whole moon and entire sky could be contained within the reflection of a single dewdrop on a blade grass (or on a dandelion). Now we know scientifically that when we ‘zoom in’ to the tiniest things, they are just as vast and mysterious and complex as when we ‘zoom-out’ to the largest scales of reality.
When we approach the animal, plant, or insect world (or any other world), it would help us to be mindful of Horton’s wisdom. Why? Because thanks to modern astronomy and space-travel, it is now easy to see our entire Earth just like the speck on Horton’s dandelion.
Carl Sagan, America’s beloved 20th century scientist of outer-space, sums up this sentiment best. He said this in reaction to seeing space probe Voyager 1’s photo of Earth from six billion kilometres away:
“To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
From most vantage-points in our universe, if Earth can ever be seen at all, then it’s only as a microscopic ‘pale blue dot’. Yet it is on that dot that everything that we’ve ever loved and known has happened. Whether we see an atom as a universe, or our universe as an atom, everything is a matter of perspective.
We know that we are conscious – that we humans experience, think, feel and love. But do we really know that what is not human is unlike us in this regard? How can we be certain that elephants, ants, planets, dandelions, or microscopic specks on dandelions don’t think, feel and love? If we’ve never experienced life from their point of view, or heard their thoughts in our language, how can we really be so foolhardy to believe that we’re the only parts of the universe worthy of, and capable of, love and care?
This probably feels like a radical conclusion to most people, but I hope and pray that one day it won’t. In our own history, social rights of oppressed human groups have only ever been recognised when their voices have been heard. Horton’s Whos were only saved from genocide when they were physically heard, shouting as loud as they could:
‘We are here! We are here! We are here! We are here!’
I hope that we can collectively hear the canaries in our coalmine – Indigenous human groups whose lands are being destroyed, the Global South who are experiencing regular weather disasters due to climate change, the 150 plant & animal species going extinct every day due to deforestation, and our increasingly polluted waters. They too are here, and they’re crying for our attention.
If there has been any social progress in human history, then it is in the broadening of the circle of our compassion beyond ourselves, beyond our tribe, beyond our gender, beyond our sexuality, beyond our race and nation, and hopefully one day beyond our species.
“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” – Albert Einstein
This isn’t ‘sentimental hogwash’ as Henry F. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) might put it. It’s a rational conclusion drawn from the scientific truth of this universe. Furthermore, if we don’t live accordingly to it, then the very civilisations that we’ve so far co-created are under threat from collapse. This is due to the massive influence humanity now has on Earth’s climate and ecosystems – within which our civilisations are embedded, and dependent upon.
Horton is a character in an illustrated book for toddlers, though true to his elephant-ness he displays a wisdom that can not only save the dandelion-dust world of Whos, but that can also save our pale-blue-dot world of humans and quintillions of other beings.
In cognitive science, it’s been demonstrated that even most degree students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) have difficulty reasoning with magnitudes of numbers outside of human perception. Despite being constantly surrounded ‘millions’ and ‘many millions of millions’ every day (whether in economic news, or in the number of atoms making up everything around us), we never directly perceive these large figures.
We cannot truly get our minds around how many dandelions might be in the world, or how many dandelion seeds are in an individual field ready to be spread by the wind. We cannot properly picture there being 8 billion other humans just like us, or the quintillions of other Earthly beings.
Some people might find this realisation scary, others awe-inspiring. ‘Horton Hears a Who’ is largely about confronting this seeming-infinity that faces us every day. We can ignore and deny it – even, like Kanga, actively harming and destroying ‘otherly’-worlds as a result of such denial. Or, like Horton, we can recognise that a person is a person and a world is a world, no matter how small or different they appear to us.
“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” – Albert Einstein (again)
Horton chooses to see everything as a miracle, and risks his own trunk to save the Whos’ dandelion-home. This is like the people in our world who act to conserve natural ecosystems, who protect endangered species, and who defend the oppressed (human or otherwise). This is to recognise that the ‘Other’ is as vast, infinite, undeserving of cruelty, and worthy of love and care as we are.
And returning to our beginning claim about beauty, beauty doesn’t have to have anything to do with rarity – even the ultra-common dandelion can be regarded as profoundly beautiful, as we’ve found in our journey here.
“If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere.” – Vincent Van Gogh
By simply considering dandelions, we’ve floated through galaxies and towards the future fate of our world. Next time you come across dandelions, let’s not be so quick to see them as ugly weeds. Maybe we can see them as thousands of wishes, as ‘Heaven in a Wild Flower’, as worlds unto themselves, and as miracles that are as miracley as each of us are.
To wish you well onwards into your day, here’s a dreamy T7D-curated playlist of dandelion music:
(Written by Callum Bruce Bell)