Common People

How dandelions bought us down to Earth

'Dandelions were the first plants that spoke to me. Or perhaps I should say the first flower I held a dialogue with one spring morning in Oxford'. Charlotte Du Cann relates a radical weed encounter that shaped a practice that she continues to this day, as a writer, teacher, cook and lover of all things wild and free. Second post in our series The Plant Practice.
is a writer, editor and co-director of The Dark Mountain Project. Her most recent book, After Ithaca is about recovering our core relationships with the mythos and sentient Earth, revolving around the Underworld tasks of Psyche. She teaches ensemble creative practice and lives on the wild salty edge of East Anglia.

Dandelions were the first plants that spoke to me. Or perhaps I should say the first plants I held a dialogue with one spring morning in Oxford. There is always a key encounter that shapes all the others you are likely to have and for me it was this radiant, royal member of the sunflower family, hated by gardeners and tidy folk, loved by foragers and medicine people. 

Looking back, I can see that the urgency to relate to the plant world was already there 20 years ago, even though the frame of collapse and the climate emergency had yet to be revealed. Somewhere I realised that ‘regenerating the wasteland’ meant first radically reconfiguring our perception of the vegetable kingdom. US wildtender Kollibri Terre Sonneblum recently wrote on so-called ‘invasive’ species:

Our contemporary, technological society is probably more out of touch with plant life than any other culture in human history due to its degree of urbanization and mechanization. Most people barely notice the existence of plants, or even seem to recognize them as living things. Their attention is buried in screens, their focus centred on human affairs. A UFO looking down might marvel at how little attention and care we collectively give to plants considering that we utterly depend on them for the food we eat and the air we breath.

The ‘weeds’ that flourish in disturbed ground are the ones that hold the key to a reconnection.

This is a chapter from a book about plants I later published, and  about the practice that transformed my relationship with the living world, rooted me in a sentient Earth and still acts as a bridge between people and places wherever I go.  It comes from a section called Plant Communications, about a dialogue that laid the tracks for all the outer and inner journeys that followed.



Port Meadow, Oxford 1999

I looked at its sunny face in the tangled grass and laughed. We were walking through Port Meadow, searching for a plant to begin our dreamings with. It was April and small flowers were springing up everywhere – henbit, speedwell, dog violet, ground ivy. In the streets the cherries were flowering. But wherever I looked this yellow spiky flower disc caught my eye, pushing up through pavements, walls, cracks in car park tarmac, railway sidings. Everywhere hundreds of small suns with their ragged urchin leaves were shining forth. ‘I can cope with everything but not dandelions’, boomed a loud invisible voice as we walked home. I peered through the hedge and saw a North Oxford matron, standing outraged by her invaded garden path.

‘I think we’ll start with dandelion,’ I said.


At the beginning we called our interior journeying drumming and dreaming. Listening to the beat of a bodhrán, we lay in the darkness and allowed whatever images and messages came to us in the space of half an hour. How did we know these images came from the plant? There was the presence of another intelligence which you could discern, an intelligence that was distinct from your own. You recognised this from your visit to the flower you held in your memory, when you  noticed something striking, something original about its form. People who watch birds call this the jizz: how each bird moves, stands or inhabits the space. Black specks are flapping across the horizon, out of the corner of your eye a sharp wing flashes past; knowing the jizz of crows and hawks you see the specks are jackdaws and the flash is a sparrowhawk. It cannot be anything else.

You know a flower in the field by its unmistakable colour: only the scarlet pimpernel is that kind of red; only the larkspur that kind of blue. There is something particular in its shape, emanation or scent, its presence, the way it appears, that makes you know instinctively, before you know in your mind, that it is a beech and not a hornbeam, a sow thistle and not a hawkweed. You know these images that appear in the seeing belong to the flower because they contain the essence of the spiky dandelion: they are not the kind of images you would make up yourself.

I am remembering goldness, ragged leaves, bitter sap, entering a deep space within myself, the way all creators do, ‘so that imagination can meet memory in the dark,’ as Annie Dillard once called it. Dillard, a peerless observer of nature, wrote in lonely shoreline huts and deliberately shut out the view; Chinese sages dwelt upon the complexity of the Tao by retiring into the deep recesses of mountain caves. In Oxford, after looking at the sunny faces of dandelions in Port Meadow, I go home and lie down on the wooden ship that is my bed, next to Mark. We close the curtains and we close our eyes.

You close your eyes, turn away from the world to access your own abilities to perceive at depth, to see beyond five-sense reality and behold the energy that lies behind the form, the inner sun of the dandelion. Here in the interior of ourselves, as we begin the enquiry, we search for subtle signs, clues, words, images, nuances of meaning, a shift in awareness, a change in temperature.

In the dialogues that follow we explore and bring together the form and dynamic of our interchanges. In contrast to the dramatic all-encompassing experiences of peyote and San Pedro, our work with plants in Oxford goes at a modest grammarian’s pace. It is slow, thorough, paved with small triumphs. As we look at the individual flowers we begin to see how each plant fits into the  living fabric of the earth, how its energies relate to our own. How the plants make us feel is always the key in our communications. Good communication depends in great measure on an ability to feel another’s presence, to know their jizz, their original form. Fellow feeling, whether for plant, people or place, is what brings about a meeting of the heart.

The heart takes you into the spirit of things, takes you to the place where everything is connected. We realise that no matter how the plant makes us feel when we behold it or sit beside it – joyful, or at odds, energised or depleted – that feeling will be a way through into the dialogue. The dandelion that spring day made me feel  unaccountably happy, liberated. When I heard the offended gardener, I loved the plant for being an upstart, such a terrible commoner, growing with abandon everywhere it could, pushing through the stones of civilisation come what may. It was reminding me of myself, my real self, not the hybrid self that was trained to feel cowed by autocratic high-bred matrons. Wild plants always remind us of our true forms because they themselves are true forms. It is what they are doing, their relationship with the human world, keeping us on track, in touch with the life that really matters.

Wild plants always remind us of our true forms because they themselves are true forms … keeping us on track, in touch with the life that really matters

I did not see the flower’s sunny face that day in the seeing, but all its other parts. They came in the form of a royal family who were not on speaking terms, a family rather down on its luck. The seed was a king who was very melancholic, the root a French queen who was haughty, the sap was a crown prince who only cared about his dandy looks, and the leaves were frisky young princes who played without a care. In fact, no one really cared about anything or anyone. They were a most disunited family.

I related everything to Mark.

‘But what does it mean?’ he asked.
‘How do I know?’ I said rather snappily.
‘Is that you or the dandelion speaking?’ he said.

We looked at each other in a kind of shock.

Why was it shocking? Because I don’t normally snap. Because it had worked. We had set out to have a dialogue with the plant and the plant immediately had spoken back, not just by showing a composite image of its workings, but with words that jumped out of my own mouth. This is what we found out at the beginning: plants ‘speak’ by resonating with the parts of yourself you are not necessarily in touch with, which you then voice out loud; they speak by showing these parts in a kind of pictorial language, in which subtle things are touched upon and made apparent, which you then find words for. The dreamings of flowers, as we had found earlier with night dreams, did not respond kindly to interpretation, to meanings imposed on them from the outside. We realised you need to behold the images and feelings you receive and let those images work in your imagination without organising them according to your rational mind.

You need to make connections you would not normally make, cross reference,  translate, imagine, invent, find words. The solar workings of plants are like a dance that needs transcribing in our daylight consciousness. Not because you are unable to understand the seeing on its own terms, but because voicing these connections and creative links out loud are how we communicate with the Earth. It is part of our consciousness making meaning in the world.

Voicing these connections and creative links out loud are how we communicate with the Earth.

When you look at a flower you look at everything, from all angles. The essence of the information will be similar for most people, but the images will differ according to each person’s intent. Although I had approached the plant as a medicine person might, my interests were metaphysical and evolutionary, so the ‘information’ I received  from the plants took this form. It answered my own inquiry into consciousness. This was not just medicine for the body, it was the stuff of paradigm shifting. The family were disunited (I will find out later that its Latin name Taraxacum means remedy for disorder). This, however, did not mean that the plant was showing me that unification was the order of the day. Quite the opposite. The relationships within this severed family and their disputes were old and outdated and needed to be overthrown, while retaining the positive qualities they exhibited.

Dandelion just before opening, Suffolk 2021 (still by Simon Maggs)

The dandelion is a principle medicine herb. Like other common weeds gardeners throw out of their kingdoms – horsetail, nettle, yarrow, burdock – it is an excellent tonic for the blood, keeping it pure, rich, flowing (just not necessarily blue). Northern Europeans have sought out its bitter leaves for centuries to keep themselves in balance. It is a great equaliser of the system. Its roots are particularly useful  because they are full of building-block minerals. The king is a miser because the plant itself is a great hoarder of iron and copper. It is also one of the most effective urinary herbs (the king is pissed off) and a spring tonic for any system that has become stiff, cold and mean. But the dandelion is addressing other issues that affect our physical beings here.

The hierarchical systems we uphold in society are stiff like this dandelion family. You can see this in the static forms we seek to emulate, in political positions and religious statues, in our worship of form and ritual, in our hoarding of money and metals. The stiff-upper-lip élite are trained to be rigid: rigid manners, closely kept traditions, closely guarded secrets and bank accounts, clipped speech, clipped hedges. As this hierarchy extends its influence throughout the collective, everything stiffens up, seizes up, not just our manner with each other but also within our bodies. We live in a collective  of creaking bones and joints. The fluidity and spontaneity of our feelings dry up and we become pissed off and bitter and self-obsessed. Dandelion releases these crystallisations in the body, caused by the accumulation of uric acid. It cures our jaded livers and kidneys. And, if we let it, it will cure our minds of our terrible worship of hierarchy.

The seeing was simple and yet it was complex. In fact, the more I looked at the dandelion images, the more complex they became. The sunny flowers had seemed simple as they shone in the meadow grass, our visit to them that day almost inconsequential, but the more attention we paid to their presence, the more composite the picture they presented. I felt there was never enough you could say about dandelions.

This phenomenon of seeing I recognised from the dreaming practice. The more you observe a particular dream detail, the more the observed object will reveal itself. This is a quantum quality the soul brings when it pays attention – quantum seeing, if you like. The idea of quantum seeing is often talked about. The  concept of the observer and the observed is almost a cliché, but very few people actually live their lives and see reality according to the quantum paradigm. When it comes to being the observer, rather than talking about it, Newton and the Rational Mind still hold their separatist sway.

However, plants require you to see in this quantum way. They require that you see the world in relationship, not, as the king and queen are, in isolation. You are not seeing with a closed mind that is cut off from, not on speaking terms with, what it is looking at, but with an open mind that is making connections and in communication. The mind here is the interface, not the controller of perception. You have opened this mind to the intelligence and communication of the flower so it can reveal its components, both in intricate detail and as part of a cosmic pattern. Which also includes yourself.

Dandelions at spring equinox, Frostenden, Suffolk

What was the royal family saying? I saw that dandelion is above all a common flower. It is a born proletarian. We found it on common land. It grows everywhere, showing its sunny head almost all year round, through every crack and cranny, even in the gardens of the high and mighty, causing them great exasperation.  ‘I can cope with everything but not dandelions! Why dandelions? Because they are  uncontrollable, unpredictable, throwing their seeds wildly and joyfully into the wind. Because they are named after the regal lion who says no matter which house we were born into we are all born with the same hearts. And those hearts have teeth. They snap and bite when they are controlled, and most especially by the mummy queen, daddy king, son prince archetypes that dominate us, the ancien régime. The dent-de-lion dandelion is telling us to show our teeth, to show our mettle and most of all show ourselves.

No matter which house we were born into we are all born with the same hearts. And those hearts have teeth. They snap and bite when they are controlled

Because the dandelion is also a flower of the sun. When I went out with Mark in those early pioneer days we took a wild flower guidebook with us and learned to recognise the plants using the Linnean system of taxonomy. It is a good way to identify plants, though I never liked the snobbery that goes with knowing the botanical Latin names. When you know the flowers you can drop the system.

However, these flower groupings or families can sometimes contain useful hints as to the plant’s characteristics. For example, the dandelion is a member of the sunflower, or composite, family. It possesses the qualities that many composites have of breaking up the negative effects of the old order and establishing new conditions on all kinds of levels – mental, emotional, physical. Echinacea, for example, is a composite medicine par excellence. It chases away the colds and flu and inflammations that are so prevalent among the collective when the establishment holds its clammy sway. The popular composite herbal remedies – chamomile, marigold, arnica – all have these simple and yet complex actions. Chamomile will make you go to sleep, calm your digestion, soothe inflamed gums, clear hay fever, combat all kinds of allergy, everything that is caused by an over-controlled unnatural existence.

Botanically, however, the composite flower is most striking for another reason: its structure takes the form of a group of flowers. You can see this most remarkably in the sunflower itself. The flowers open by radiating from the outside rim and moving towards the centre, a spiralling host of tiny sweet-scented golden flowers that invite the bees to join their circular solar dance. The composite flower is among the last in the evolutionary line of flowers, signalling that the ‘highest’ development on Earth is within a group structured on the workings of the sun.

In the seeing, the dandelion was displaying its composite signature. It is a group flower but the group it was showing was not one that it favoured. It was a royal family in need of a revolution. And I, as the observer, the one looking at the observed group, was the revolutionary daughter in the family, about to overthrow this hierarchy so that a very different kind of group could begin to form. Egalité,  liberté, fraternité! shouts the dandelion from every lawn in the land.

It was then that I realised the sunny flowerhead that had been absent in the seeing was my own.

Some people say that the basis for a whole relationship takes place in the first fifteen minutes of a meeting. Initial conditions are always  key. This was certainly true of the plants. The first plant became the signature for all the other plants that followed. Our meeting was simple, direct, witty, complex, demanding, iconoclastic and pragmatic. The plant communications established with dandelion were all like this. It was a radical relationship from the start.


52 Flowers That Shook My World – A Radical Return to Earth is available from the Dark Mountain shop as a PDF

Details about the Earth Dialogue and other writing can be found on my new website:

The Plant Practice is edited by Mark Watson. Next week: Nastassja Noell encounters Mother Rhus in the forests of the Southern Appalachians.





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