Monday, 2 May 2011

Nothing but flowers

'If this is paradise, I wish I had a lawnmower' David Byrne sung in 1988, a wry twist on Joni Mitchell's eco-anthem 'they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.' 

I grew up in the middle class suburban south east of England, hardly paradise, but it was a privileged place to live. I rarely go there these days but when I do I am reminded how leafy and green it is, in a regimented sort of way. For my childhood circle and me, the local parks and gardens gave us our formative experiences of Nature, carefully pollarded and pruned. For something a bit wilder we had the chalky North Downs a London Country bus ride away. David Byrne writes of America but his clever lyrics in Nothing But Flowers neatly encapsulate our closeted, sanitised dichotomy about all things living. We rather liked Nature, but we didn't understand much about it and we weren't sure it could be trusted. We had it tidily presented to us or else we viewed it from the safe distance of a book or television documentary.

Paradise is an epithet much favoured by tourism promoters. Our planet is remarkably well endowed with Paradise Hotels in Paradise Bays, and when we tire of them there are lively Paradise Clubs on Paradise Boulevards. Paradise, the lifestylists would have us believe, is leisurely and luxurious and, crucially, it is decidely not-here. That is, it's a place we escape to. Now don't get me wrong, I'm all for a bit of escape and I am as happy as the next person to put my feet up and take a dose of pampering, but it's a fair bet that any location requiring to be prefaced by 'Paradise' is probably about as far from my idea the Garden of Eden as it is possible to get.

Television advertising has its calendar and right now we are definitely into 'outdoor DIY season'. We are encouraged to proof our sheds and decking with something noxious, to green our lawns and, most pressing of all, to exterminate those bothersome weeds. The language of weedbusting is tough and masculine, the voice as gravelly as the path through which the dastardly invaders are poking. Never fear, there are products out there which will (in bold capitals) KILL THEM DEAD (as if there were some lesser, half-hearted grade of killing). Weeds are to be viewed like viruses. Our mission, nay our duty, is to eradicate them before they overrun the neighbourhood.

Looking back, I'm quite sure weeds were against the law in leafy Surrey in the 1970s. If not quite a criminal offence, then an unkempt garden was certainly sufficient grounds on which to base a character judgement. If a neighbour couldn't keep his privet hedge trimmed or his path free of dandelions who knew what moral lassitude festered behind his front door.

Dandelions, actually, are a good case in point. They are the weed par excellence, singled out for special vilification. They are persistent and prolific. In the competitive world of weed extermination if your product can't deal with the dandelion it's not worth the price. I grew up with an ambivalent attitude to the 'tooth of the lion' (the name is a corruption of the French dent de lion). I told the time by dandelion clocks and the sunny yellow flowers were forever associated with warm spring days. But somewhere, somehow, I had it instilled in me that dandelions were bad. If I touched them the milky sap would blacken my hands and then I would wet the mattress. In fact the culinary and medicinal uses of the dandelion have been exploited for milennia; the flowers make excellent wine and the tap root can be ground into a substitute for coffee with similar purgative and diuretic properties. But in the collective memory of the people responsible for my education these virtues were only partially remembered, corrupted. Not for nothing was the dandelion nicknamed 'piss-a-bed'. Best give them a wide berth and tell the time from a wristwatch.

In other contexts, of course, weeds become wild flowers and then they are to be loved. Coach tours are organised to woodlands carpeted in bluebells and which of us has not cooed from a passing car window at a meadow ablaze with summer poppies or cornflowers? Like the dandelion many of them grow vigorously. They do so precisely because they are meant to be here. This is their home; the soil, the climate, the ecosystem of which they are part suits them just fine and they thrive. And there's the rub, the minute they get inside the garden gate they run amok, outgrowing our tender and temperamental cultivars, our dainty but delicate foreigners.

The trouble with real paradise is that it's all rather unruly, not at all convenient or accessible and not always even very pleasing on the eye or nose. It's overgrown and muddy, full of things that scratch and sting, full of dying and decay. Some things in paradise even poison us, although not as many as Nature's detractors would have us believe. My paradise is riotously filled with dandelions that go unmolested; there are clovers and celandines in the lawn, thistles and ragwort in the paddock and marsh marigolds choking the stream. The lawnmower has happily rusted in the shed that I never proofed and the rain got in. The tour operators would have trouble selling my paradise, but then it's not for sale.

I'll leave the final word to David Byrne: 'This used to be a shopping mall, now it's all covered in flowers.' I wish.


  1. I've rather wryly noticed that rash of macho anti-weed and green lawn adverts too. Your thoughts on weeds are mine too. When I was a kid the girls used to say that dandelions made you wet the bed so the boys defiantly chewed them anyway! Where would my childhood have been without dandelions?

    Although I like the yellow flowers I do try to 'cadw drefn' by collecting the seed heads before they blow away, but maybe your 'anhrefn' is best; it would certainly be easier!

  2. Goodness that was a quick response. Croeso i dysnomia... Greg. I confess I never had the courage to chew dandelions as a child, the superstition was lodged too deep. Perhaps I'll give it a go this spring. My very un-green lawn is full of them.

  3. My favourite flower is one that you give a brief mention: the poppy. It reminds me of railway journeys from Hull in the early nineties. The red shimmer from fields, travelling past the window. But it is a painful, intense red - and fragile too. Thank you, also, for the link.

  4. 'Favourite' is a difficult one for me when it comes to wild flowers but I agree poppies are right up there. Not sure you can make wine out of them though, or am I wrong?

  5. An, another voice joins the chorus in honour of the humble dandelion. Anhrefn you are in good company and among friends: Astral Cat has also recently reflected upon them ( as has Sandra (

    This celebration of dandelions reminds me of Lynn Margulis, my favourite apologist of bacteria: "Our cultural prejudices, our haughty deprecation, prevent access to their ancient wisdom and the salutary effects of dialogue." (from her essay Prejudice and Bacterial Consciousness)

  6. Poppy wine, I think, would be poisonous. As would foxglove or labernum wine. Pretty to look at though.

    As regards dandelions - they are beautiful flowers with a bad press. One of the most memorable bits of 'Wildlife' footage I have seen was in David Attenborough's 'Life of Plants', where we see a field of dandelion heads, and the wind dispersing them to travel their journey.

  7. When holidaying in France I ate dandelions, both leaves and flowers, as a salad. Their nickname was indeed 'piss-a-bed' but only some of the party obliged.
    Here is a little poem by David Freed which Ben reminded me of in the comment he has just left:

    When I was little
    three or four
    I liked to blow the heads
    off dandelions grown white
    And watch their little parachutes
    float gently down.
    But when a puff of wind
    Would catch them up
    And swirl them high above
    I'd run along to watch them fly
    for they were free
    so much like me.

    Lynn Margulis quote by Cricket only confirms that weeds are such a human construct. There are no weeds in nature, only plants.

    I love your paradise Anhrefn. Keep your lawnmower permanently rusty!

  8. I always feel sorry for the dandelion in the Roundup advert! And it's a particularly beautiful dandelion too!

  9. Me too Sandra, but don't fret. The dandelions will last longer than we do.