Gateway to the Classics: Wild-Flower Study by Anna Botsford Comstock
Wild-Flower Study by  Anna Botsford Comstock

The Dandelion

Teacher's Story

dropcap image HIS 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 lawn were a great trouble to him until he learned to love them, and then the sight of them gave him keenest pleasure. And Lowell says of this "dear common flower"—

" 'Tis Spring's largess, which she scatters now

To rich and poor alike, with lavish hand;

Though most hearts never understand

To take it at God's value, and pass by

The offered wealth with unrewarded eye."

It is very difficult for us, when we watch the behavior of the dandelions, not to attribute to them thinking power, they have so many ways of getting ahead of us. I always look at a dandelion and talk to it as if it were a real person. One spring when all the vegetables in my garden were callow weaklings, I found there, in their midst, a dandelion rosette with ten great leaves spreading out and completely shading a circle ten inches in diameter; I said, "Look here, Madam, this is my garden!" and I pulled up the squatter. But I could not help paying admiring tribute to the taproot, which lacked only an inch of being a foot in length. It was smooth, whitish, fleshy and, when cut, bled a milky juice showing that it was full of food; and it was as strong from the end-pull as a whipcord; it also had a bunch of rather fine rootlets about an inch below the surface of the soil and an occasional rootlet farther down; and then I said, "Madam, I beg your pardon; I think this was your garden and not mine."

Dandelion leaves afford an excellent study in variation of form. The edges of the leaf are notched in a peculiar way, so that the lobes were, by some one, supposed to look like lions' teeth in profile; thus the plant was called in France "dents-de-lion" (teeth of the lion), and we have made from this the name dandelion. The leaves are so bitter that grazing animals do not like to eat them, and thus the plants are safe even in pastures.

The hollow stem of the blossom-head from time immemorial has been a joy to children. It may be made into a trombone, which will give to the enterprising teacher an opportunity for a lesson in the physics of sound, since by varying its length, the pitch is varied. The dandelion-curls, which the little girls enjoy making, offer another lesson in physics—that of surface tension, too difficult for little girls to understand. But the action of this flower stem is what makes the dandelion seem so endowed with acumen. If the plant is in a lawn, the stem is short, indeed so short that the lawn-mower cannot cut off the flower-head. In this situation it will blossom and seed within two inches of the ground; but if the plant is in a meadow or in other high grass, the stem lifts up sometimes two feet or more, so that its blossom may be seen by bees and its seeds be carried off by the breeze without let or hindrance from the grass. We found two such stems each measuring over 30 inches in height.

Before a dandelion head opens, the stem, unless very short, is likely to bend down to protect the young flowers, but the night before it is to bloom it straightens up; after the blossoms have matured it may again bend over, but straightens up when the seeds are to be cast off.

It often requires an hour for a dandelion head to open in the morning and it rarely stays open longer than five or six hours; it may require another hour to close. Usually not more than half the flowers of the head open the first day, and it may require several days for them all to blossom. After they have all bloomed and retired into their green house and put up the shutters, it may take them from one to two weeks to perfect their seeds.

In the life of the flower-head the involucre, or the house in which the flower family lives, plays an important part. The involucral bracts, in the row set next to the flowers, are sufficiently long to cover the unopened flowers; the bracts near the stem are shorter and curl back, making a frill. In the freshly opened flower-head, the buds at the middle all curve slightly toward the center, each bud showing a blunt, five-lobed tip which looks like the tips of five fingers held tightly together. The flowers in the outer row blossom first, straightening back and pushing the banner outward; and now we can see that the five lobes in the bud are the five notches at the end of the banner. All the flowers in the dandelion-head have banners, but those at the center, belonging to the younger flowers, have shorter and darker yellow banners. After a banner is unfurled, there pushes out from its tubular base a darker yellow anther-tube; the five filaments below the tube are visible with a lens. A little later, the stigma-ramrod pushes forth from the tube, its fuzzy sides acting like a brush to bring out all the pollen; later it rises far above the anther-tube and quirls back its stigma-lobes, as if every floret were making a dandelion curl of its own. The lens shows us, below the corolla, the seed. The pappus is not set in a collar upon the dandelion seed, as it is in the aster seed; there is a short stem above the seed which is called the "beak" and the pappus is attached to this.

Every day more blossoms open; but on dark, rainy days and during the night the little green house puts up its shutters around the flower-family, and if the bracts are not wide enough to cover the growing family, the banners of the outer flowers have thick or brownish portions along their lower sides which serve to calk the chinks. It is interesting to watch the dandelion stars close as the night falls, and still more interesting to watch the sleepy-heads awaken long after the sun is up in the morning; they often do not open until eight o'clock. The dandelion flower-families are very economical of their pollen and profuse nectar, and do not expose them until the bees and other insects are abroad ready to make morning calls.

After all the florets of a dandelion family have blossomed, they retire again into their green house and devote themselves to perfecting their seeds. They may stay thus in retirement for several days, and during this period the flower stem often grows industriously; and when the shutters of the little green house are again let down, what a different appearance has the dandelion family! The seeds with their balloons are set so as to make an exquisite, filmy globe; and now they are ready to coquette with the wind and, one after another, all the balloons go sailing off. One of these seeds is well worth careful observation through a lens. The balloon is attached to the top of the beak as an umbrella frame is attached to the handle, except that the "ribs" are many and fluffy; while the dandelion youngster, hanging below, has an overcoat armed with grappling hooks, which enable it to cling fast when the balloon chances to settle to the ground.


1. Floret of dandelion;

2. Seed of dandelion. Both enlarged.

Father Tabb says of the dandelion,—"With locks of gold today; tomorrow silver gray; then blossom bald." But not the least beautiful part of the dandelion is this blossom-bald head after all the seeds are gone; it is like a mosaic, with a pit at the center of each figure where the seed was attached. There is an interesting mechanism connected with this receptacle. Before the seeds are fully out this soon-to-be-bald head is concave at the center, later it becomes convex, and the mechanism of this movement liberates the seeds which are embedded in it.

Each freshly opened corolla-tube is full to overflowing with nectar, and much pollen is developed; therefore, the dandelion has many kinds of insect visitors. But perhaps the bee shows us best where the nectar is found; she thrusts her tongue down into the little tubes below the banners, working very rapidly from floret to floret. The dandelion stigmas have a special provision for securing cross-pollenation; and if that fails, to secure pollen from their own flower-family; and now the savants have found that the pistils can also grow seeds without any pollen from anywhere. It surely is a resourceful plant!

The following are the tactics by which the dandelion conquers us and takes possession of our lands: (a) It blossoms early in the spring and until snow falls, producing seed for a long season. (b) It is broadminded as to its location, and flourishes on all sorts of soils. (c) It thrusts its long tap-roots down into the soil, and thus gets moisture and food not reached by other plants. (d) Its leaves spread out from the base, and crowd and shade many neighboring plants out of existence. (e) It is on good terms with many insects, and so has plenty of pollen carriers to insure strong seeds; it can also develop seeds from its own pollen, and as a last resort it can develop seeds without any pollen. (f) It develops almost numberless seeds, and the wind scatters them far and wide and they thus take possession of new territory. (g) It forms vigorous leaf-rosettes in the fall, and thus is able to begin growth early in the spring.


The Dandelion

Leading thought—The dandelions flourish despite our determined efforts to exterminate them. Let us study the way in which they conquer.

Method—The study should be made with the dandelions on the school grounds. Questions should be given, a few at a time, and then let the pupils consult the dandelions as to the answers. The dandelion is a composite flower and may be studied according to Lesson CXXXV. All the florets have banners or rays.


1. Where do you find dandelions growing? If they are on the lawn, how long are their blossom or seed stems? If in a meadow or among high grass, how long is the blossom stem? Why is this? Is the blossom stem solid or hollow? Does it break easily?

2. Dig up a dandelion root and then explain why this weed withstands drought, and why it remains, when once planted.

3. Sketch or describe a dandelion leaf. Why was the plant named "lion's teeth?" How are the leaves arranged about the root? How does this help the dandelion and hinder other plants? In what condition do the leaves pass the winter under the snow? Why is this useful to the plant?

4. Take a blossom not yet open. Note the bracts that cover the unopened flower-head. Note the ones below and describe them.

5. Note the dandelion flower-head just open. Which flowers open first? How do the buds look at the center? Do all the florets have banners? Are the banners of the central florets the same color and length as of those outside? Examine a floret and note the young seed. Is the pappus attached to it or above it?

6. What happens to the dandelion blossom on rainy or dark days? How is the dandelion family hidden during the rain? When does it appear again? Do you think that this has anything to do with the insect visitors? Do bees and other insects gather nectar during dark or rainy days?

7. Note at what hour the dandelions on the lawn go to sleep and at what hour they awaken on pleasant days.

8. Make notes on a certain dandelion plant three times a day: How long does it take the dandelion head to open fully on a sunny morning? How long does it remain open? How long does it take the flower-head to close? What proportion of the flowers in the head, blossoms during the first day? What proportion of the flowers in the head, blossoms during the second day? How long before they all blossom? Does the flower-head remain open longer in the afternoon on some days than on others, equally sunny? Does the stem bend over before the blossom-head opens?

9. After all the little flowers of a dandelion family have blossomed, what happens to it? How long does it stay shut up in its house? Measure the stem, and see if it stretches up during the time. How does the dandelion look when it opens again? Look at a dandelion-head full of seed, and see how the seeds are arranged to make a perfect globe. Shake the seeds off and examine the "bald head" with a lens. Can you see where the seeds were set?

10. Examine a dandelion seed with a lens. Describe the balloon, the beak or stem of the balloon, and the seed. Why do you suppose the seed has these hooks?

11. How early in the spring, and how late in the fall, do dandelions blossom?

12. Watch a bee when she is working on a dandelion flower, and see where she thrusts her tongue and which flowers she probes.

13. Tell all the things that you can remember which the dandelion does in order to live and thrive in spite of us.

14. What use do we make of the dandelions?

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