Churchyard Nature Note with Andrew Tompsett

August 2016

Dandelions – a bitter herb


Dandelions, so spectacular when seen flowering in the spring followed by their seed heads (clocks) and parachutes during the summer, are very beneficial for wildlife. The flowers feed the early bumble bee and the seeds are loved by goldfinches and linnets. However, to the gardener they are a perpetual nuisance particularly when they grow between paving stones: also, if cut off, only a portion of root is needed to perpetuate the plant again quite quickly. In folklore picking dandelion flowers involves taking a risk as the children’s playground name, ‘pissy beds’ suggests!

Dandelion, Latin name, Taraxacum officinale, has rather upright leaves which are coarsely toothed, hence the basis of its common name; lions teeth. The leaves are edible and their bitter flavour is accepted by some people and with others such as wild lettuce, chicory and sorrel comprise the ‘bitter herbs’ of the bible. The book, Numbers, chapter 9 states how the Israelites fleeing from Egypt were commanded by Moses to eat bitter herbs with sacrificed lamb and unleavened bread to recall their hasty flight from Egypt.

Today our most common salad crop is lettuce and plant breeders have selected out the unpopular bitter tasting flavours. Any lettuce you grow yourself may however still have a bitter taste if stressed by drought or is near to flowering time when the flavour changes suddenly.

All the members of the dandelion family have composite flowers so that any flower head comprises many small florets each one developing a seed. This is one reason why these plants are so numerous. Another reason is the flowers do not actually need to be pollinated but form seed readily without insect activity.

As the summer progresses we see different relatives of the dandelion many of which have a similar basal rosette of leaves but with sprays of smaller and much taller flowers usually occurring amongst mixed vegetation as opposed to the dandelion preference for an open situation. These taller plants include hawkweed, hawkbit, hawk’s- beards and cat’s ear and can be more of a problem to identify, even by botanists. Many of these are now flowering in the sunnier parts of the churchyard amongst the summer vegetation which is now reaching a climax. Extensive new paths have been mown and are well worth exploring. The team members are continuing in their efforts to control the rampant hogweed and also brambles now that the birds have flown. The bird boxes were well-used this year.

There are frequent requests for help in locating graves of long dead relatives for visitors and it would be very useful to complete a project that was started some years ago to pinpoint the graves, especially the more recognisable ones and catalogue existing photographs. They could then be placed online. Should anyone feel interested taking this on please contact Pamela E Tompsett (01209 842316).

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has offered to install new signs at each of our three entrances in the near future and this will be very helpful to those visiting the war graves in our churchyard.

Andrew Tompsett

All photos:  David Fenwick