We’ve been making hazel hurdles, to replace the rotting stakes and rope used to divide the physic garden. The planting plan for this garden separates medicinal from culinary herbs; for childbirth and children’s diseases; for rheumatism, gout and painful joints; for depression, insomnia and nightmares; for the heart, lungs and blood disorders; for wounds and broken bones; for digestion, stomach and liver; for the head, hair and skin; for ears, eyes and teeth; for animal husbandry; for the household.
Mornings can be quiet; there might be someone sitting on one of the benches in front of the house, reading a paper, maybe one or two people wandering through the physic garden on their way to other parts of the Priory. They’ll pause, scrutinise a label, then the plant, or seed heads at this time of year, carry on through the garden. Sometimes people stop, and then one thing leads to another. Plants provoke memories:
‘Burdock, Nasty stuff, boys’d throw those burs at each other, at us.
‘Dandelion and Burdock.’
‘Where’s the Dandelion?’
Conversations meander, wander, as they do, still laughing, off to the cafe. And we wonder why there’s no Dandelion, haven’t noticed the absence until now. Chickweed, Daisy, considered by many to be invasive, along with so many of the plants in this garden, but no Dandelion. It seems all the more curious, after reading the extensive entry in A Modern Herbal, in which Maude Grieve mentions that Dandelion was much valued as a medicine in the times of Gerard and Parkinson. Gerard, borrowing from Pliny the Elder, recommends Dandelion for dysentery, especially beeing boiled with lentils. Pliny refers to, a sort of wild endive, too, with a broader leaf, known to some persons as “hedypnoïs.” Boiled, it acts as an astringent upon a relaxed stomach, and eaten raw, it is productive of constipation. It is good, too, for dysentery, when eaten with lentils more particularly. As with all the herbs in this garden, Dandelion serves several different needs.
Considered an extremely invasive weed, the delicate seed head set free with a breath of wind, make it a particular nuisance for the gardener; yet useful, all parts having both culinary and medicinal uses. Clarence J. Hylander writing in the Macmillan Wild Flower Book (1954) states that, It hardly seems necessary to describe this ubiquitous Composite which has become an obnoxious garden and lawn weed throughout the eastern states. Few European species have spread as rapidly in the United States as this immigrant. A more sympathetic response is found in Edward Step’s Wayside and Woodland Blossoms (1895): We may not like to find the Dandelion taking possession of our lawns, but we should regret to miss it from the odd corners by the fence and the roadside.
According to the Invasive Species Compendium, Many botanists believe that T. officinale complex originated in Greece, or perhaps the northern Himalayas, and spread across temperate areas to Europe and Asia Minor, […] and it is thought to have colonised the Americas post-Pleistocene via Beringia. […] Later introductions of T. officinale to North America are obscured in conflicting claims.
Although it is claimed that Dandelions arrived with the Vikings, the Mayflower narrative endures; Dandelions were taken to North America by the Puritans in the early seventeenth century. And while it may be considered an obnoxious garden and lawn weed, many American states now host Dandelion festivals; Vineland, New Jersey appearing to be the first to do so, in 1973. Vineland also claims to be the Dandelion capitol of the world, growing Dandelion as a cash crop to, supply restaurants and markets in Baltimore, New York City and Philadelphia.
In an article for the American Naturalist 1886, E. Lewis Sturtevant traces the cultivation of Dandelions during the nineteenth century. Primarily concerned with North America, he also refers to developments in Europe during the same period. Although he is aware that people have made use of the Dandelion in its wild state, as a vegetable, from remote times, […] its culture is modern. He goes on to describe Dandelion grown for the Boston market with, seed obtained from the largest of the wild plants. Its appearance in seed catalogues is also noted, including one variety described as common; almost certainly the ubiquitous Composite colonising American lawns, referred to by Hylander, earlier.
Its culinary uses were also noted by Eleanor Rohde, in A Garden of Herbs (1921); it had been valued as a pot herb in broths, also much more than they are now in salads. In A Modern Herbal (1931), Maude Grieve refers to the cultivation of the plant, recommending soil types, and best age to harvest roots (from two year old plants). To grow Dandelion as a crop she recommends about, 4lb. of seed to the acre […] sown in drills, one foot apart […] making sure the flower heads are picked off as soon as they appear. Writing during the early years of the twentieth century, Grieve suggests the edges of fields when room is allowed for the plough-horses to turn, could easily be utilised if the soil is good and free from stones for both Dandelion and Burdock, as the roots are much branched in stony ground. She also points out that Dandeions are an important food source for bees, providing considerable quantities of both pollen and nectar in the early spring, when the bees’ harvest from fruit trees is nearly over. […] a small succession of bloom is also kept up until late autumn, so that it is a source of honey after the main flowers have ceased to bloom. An obnoxious weed to be eradicated, cultivated for its culinary and medicinal virtues, Dandelion occupies a conflicted place in [horti]culture.
As they were leaving the physic garden the women talked about games they played as children; blowing the seed heads off Dandelions to tell the time; to ask if he loves me, he loves me not; to wonder how many years they had to wait till they were married. ‘If I knew then what I know now. Not sure I’d be asking that.’ Laughter echoes across the green separating the physic garden from the tea shop.