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Posts Tagged ‘Weeds’

According to most books and articles, dandelions weren’t seen in the new world until colonists brought them over on the Mayflower. Then presumably, word somehow got out that they had this cool new plant and Native Americans from all over the country came to Plymouth Plantation to learn how to use it.

That may sound farfetched, but it is essentially the conclusion that has to be drawn; that the dandelion is an introduced species unknown in America before 1620 (or 1607) is widely accepted as fact. 

So how could the Ojibwe from Minnesota, the Cherokee from Georgia, the Iroquois from New York and many others from the Atlantic to the Pacific have such an extensive knowledge of plants they hadn’t seen until 1620? That they did is well documented and also widely accepted as fact, but how?

The short answer is that Native Americans were most likely using dandelions for thousands of years before anyone ever crossed the Atlantic.

Twice, in 1638 and 1663, John Josselyn traveled to New England from Essex, England to see his brother Henry of Scarborough, Maine. Mr. Josselyn fancied himself a naturalist and, after living in New England for a total of 15 months, published a book in 1672 titled New-England’s rarities discovered in birds, beasts, fishes, serpents, and plants of that country. In his book Mr. Josselyn writes of “such plants as have sprung up since the English planted and kept cattle in New-England,” and one of the plants he lists is the dandelion. Ever since Mr.Josselyn wrote his book, people seem to have assumed that the dandelion came to America either as seeds mixed in with livestock feed or in the manure of cattle. This same story of seed dispersal is also found in several different accounts of the 1607 Jamestown, Virginia settlement. It is worth noting that Mr. Josselyn also wrote of a “pineapple” which turned into a swarm of stinging wasps when picked.

Dandelions were used medicinally and as food in Europe for hundreds of years before the English ever settled New England, so it isn’t hard to imagine them bringing such important plants with them. In fact a compilation titled A List of over 100 Herbs Taken to and Grown in New England by Early Settlers by Roger Tabor lists the dandelion as one of those herbs. Just because certain plants were brought to America doesn’t mean those plants weren’t also native however; the European alder was also introduced, even though there were at least 15 species of alder already here. Obviously the settlers had no way of knowing which plants they would find here.

According to an article titled Drought tolerance in the alpine dandelion, Taraxacum ceratophorum (Asteraceae), its exotic congener T. officinale, and interspecific hybrids under natural and experimental conditions by Marcus T. Brock and Candace Galen, which appeared in the August 1, 2005 issue of The American Journal of Botany, “Fossil evidence indicates that Taraxacum ceratophorum, the alpine dandelion, is native to North America.” The dandelion fossils referred to are estimated to be 100,000 years old.

The alpine dandelion is also known as the horned dandelion, and the U.S.D.A. lists it as native to North America. It grows in parts of New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, along the west coast, in the southwest, Alaska, and nearly all of Canada. Another species native to North America and now endangered is the California dandelion (Taraxacum californicum.) Both of these native species have cross bred with the introduced common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale ) and have produced numerous hybrids.

In the end the question of why nearly everything we read about the history of dandelions in America is based on one sentence written by an amateur naturalist who never left New England and who didn’t bother to mention maple trees or maple syrup can’t be answered. Though it is true that the common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale ) was introduced, fossil evidence clearly shows that native dandelions have been here for a very long time, which explains how Native Americans from all over the country could have had such vast knowledge of them.

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