A legitimate short answer is simple: the dandelion (Taraxacum genus, but most often T. officinale in N. America) is not known as “nothing more than a pesky weed.” You can find it in spring mixes in N. American grocery stores, some people still cultivate it for various reasons, and some people still forage for it in the spring when the leaves are best used in salads.
The slightly longer answer is: many Americans and Canadians (and likely other folk as well) now buy most of their food from grocery stores rather than produce (or collect) their own. In cultures where foraging is still commonly practiced (like my native Southern Appalachia), dandelion greens are collected in the spring along with other delicacies (such as ramps, poke salat, scallions, Morchella spp. or morels, chicory, and about a gazillion more). For most others, who don’t forage any foods at all, dandelions have become a pest in lawns. Even though many people might eat dandelion leaves in restaurants or in prepackaged greens from a grocery, they don’t recognize what they are eating (and those are generally farmed rather than foraged). Because dandelions were introduced (or invasive) species to the Americas, and because they are often not where people want them (i.e., in the middle of your front lawn), they have been recently classified as weeds. There are a couple of non-dandelion-specific reasons for this.
- The urbanization of the population of western nations means that most people now have a different relationship to plants than their ancestors did, say, 150 or more years ago. Industrialization clearly plays a role in this, as does increased wealth. Foraging as a common subsistence activity has become more and more rare in the first world, and is mostly a cultural rather than necessary economic practice in N. America. Native peoples and some other groups (“back to the earthers,” amateur mycologists, foodies, etc.) are either still foraging or learning to forage.
- With increasing wealth in the 20th C., and especially since the end of WWII, the rise of “suburbanization” has meant that many people now have lawns (something that in the 19th C. and before was a luxury of the ultra-wealthy). While a dandelion in a non-agricultural field is still considered to be not a weed (Taraxacum is not on any US noxious weed lists I’m aware of), if it interferes with the growth of a crop or the growth of a pretty lawn, many people would then consider it a weed. The same is true of other generally benign plants (various wild roses, wild lettuces from Lactuca, milkweed species, etc.): they are often highly desirable in certain contexts (“natural” settings), but pests when they are “in the wrong place” (cropland or your yard). This is complicated by the next piece of background:
- “Weeds” often evolve to mimic or live among cultivated species. This can easily be seen in Western N. America, where invasive grasses like Bromus tectorum (Cheatgrass) have evolved to live quite happily in wheat fields, where humans conveniently collect their seed, spread it far and wide, and replant it all over the world (which is how it got to N. America in the first place in the 19th C.). In the case of Taraxacum spp., the advent of lawn mowers and home use of herbicides has selected for ever more irritating lawn-invaders (which grow lower to the ground, are herbicide resistant, can make many flower-bearing stems per rosette per year, etc.). It’s very much like the classic “Red Queen” evolutionary story, with Taraxacum becoming “lawn parasites” thanks to environmental pressures provided by humans.
- Post WWII, the wide availability of chemicals for home-use (fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides) meant that lawn-care companies and chemical manufacturers had (and still have) a financial stake in promoting the perception that “anything not intentionally planted in your yard is weeds.” Thusly, “Weed and Feed” products specifically targeting Taraxacum and other common broadleaf plants are a hot-ticket this time of year in N. America. You can find pictures of dandelions on many, many bags of chemicals in hardware stores, feed stores, and groceries in almost all urban and rural areas of the US and Canada.
tl;dr: Very few people intentionally eat dandelion greens these days (although that is changing), and fewer still intentionally forage (or cultivate) them. Lawns have become popular for various reasons (symbol of wealth, fun for the kids, etc.), and dandelions tend to get in the way of (many) homeowners’ obsession with grasses. Home lawn-care companies and chemical manufacturers have done their best (quite successfully) to paint the dandelion as a target for an array of products.
N.B.s Although the “popular” perception of the Dandelion is that it is an invader of N. America, the USDA now recognizes a native subspecies of T. officnale in the western and arctic regions of N. America. It is one of most widespread plant genera on the planet. There are a lot of different species, subspecies, and hybrids of Taraxacum. I have no idea how the Europeans perceive the dandelion now, although in the past it was considered a valuable medicinal and forage plant, which is how my (mostly Welsh) ancestors knew about the plant and managed to pass that knowledge along to us (by making us go out and pick baskets of the stuff every spring).
Sources and Further Reading
- Jenkins, V. (2015). The lawn: a history of an American obsession. Smithsonian Institution.
- Evans, C. L. (2002). The war on weeds in the Prairie west: an environmental history. University of Calgary Press.
- Pieters, A. J. (1935). What is a Weed?. Agronomy Journal, 27(10), 781-783.
- Barrett, S. H. (1983). Crop mimicry in weeds. Economic Botany, 37(3), 255-282.
About the author, WRCousCous:
I’m trained as a plant and fungal ecologist, and now work as social-ecological scientist (studying the intersection of human and “natural” systems, with an emphasis on hysteresis effects and plant-human interactions). Hysteresis effects, in ecology, are when past events (often human actions) have persistent, and often dramatic, effects on the current state of a system. Changes in human culture can be legitimate causes of hysteresis effects as much as biophysical, geological, or agricultural events. Before getting my PhD in ecology, I taught natural history courses in an Appalachian Studies department at an eastern University, and we would often discuss the oral history (and knowledge) of forage plants, weeds, and the changing relationship of humans to the environment. I’ve also read a fair amount of “environmental history,” especially the literature devoted to the relationship of humans to plants through time.
So, dandelions. First, in terms of the Great Depression, they’re one of the generally disregarded products of the Columbian Exchange – there are some varieties of dandelion or closely related plants native to North America, but the ones you’d generally recognise are Old World imports. It’s not clear whether they were intentionally imported or not, but given their seeding habits, the chances are good that they were accidental. They grow anywhere, and can be incredibly destructive plants when they push up through paving or have their roots crack through walls.
They’re regarded as a food or medicinal plant through recorded history, though never as a particularly desirable one. Abū Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyyā al-Rāzī, known in the west as Rhazes, wrote about them around 900CE, but only as a medicinal plant, and Avicenna (Ibn Sina) reputedly devoted an entire chapter to them in one work a century later. As far as I can tell, though, they’re not included by Al-Warraq in his cookery book in Baghdad, roughly contemporaneous with Ibn Sina (at least, I can’t find any reference to them under the names I know, and the translator of the edition I have, Nawal Nasrallah, hasn’t included them in the index of ingredients). They were almost certainly included in the range of green plants used by European medieval peasants in pottages, although, again, they’re not actually included in any of the lists provided by Peter Brears in Cooking and Dining in Medieval England.
The Victorians seem to have made more use of the dandelion. E. Lewis Sturtevant, writing in 1886, notes it grown for the Boston market in 1836, and he says the seed is for sale in “various seed catalogues of 1885” in no less than 6 varieties. The first mention of dandelion as a vegetable he could find in England was 1846 in the Gardeners’ Chronicle, where it’s described as “a beautiful and delicate blanched salad”. He also says “[t]he influence of rich soil and protected growth upon the dandelion is to give increased size and succulence to the plant, and to thicken the branching of the leaves”, which is in line with most cultivated versions of wild plants. There was considerable interest in the Victorian era in new and exotic vegetables, much as there is now, and if they could be got by cultivating wild plants, so much the better.
However, dandelions, once grown, can be very hard to remove from a given location. The taproot – which is edible too – can go down a metre without much difficulty, and unless it’s pulled out entirely, the plant will regrow from it. This is a feature if you’re harvesting it, since it’ll reappear within weeks, but if you’re trying to clear it from a bed to make way for something else, it’s a pain. This is probably one of the two reasons that it’s not really grown for food anymore – the other being that it’s not terribly good. Arugula, or rocket, is generally better tasting than the leaf. The flowers can be made into a hedgerow wine, but you generally need to add other things (lemons, for example) to get anything that tastes palatable. The root can be dried, roasted, and ground to make a drink that is claimed to be like coffee, presumably by people who have never had coffee – but actual coffee, or even chicory, is better. And so forth. By 1911, the Britannica says, somewhat delicately, “[f]or the purposes formerly recognized taraxacum is now never used”. In addition, the difference between the cultivated and the wild dandelion isn’t really enough to merit growing it deliberately.
They’re not the only vegetable to disappear from modern use through inconvenience – there’s one called skirrets, which resembles carrots and parsnips, but has a bunch of longer, thinner roots, which are obviously more difficult to peel and cook than their fatter cousins, so they’ve been left behind. Likewise, alexanders, a leafy green, is more bitter and requires more cooking than celery, its closest modern equivalent, so it’s been abandoned as well. I haven’t eaten skirrits (yet), but I can assure you that alexanders taste like freshly cut hedgerow smells.
They’re not completely absent from modern cuisine, although they always seem to come with caveats. Harold McGee notes that it’s ‘occasionally grown on a small scale’. They’re used in a traditional English soft drink called Dandelion & Burdock, which is still made (a brand called Fentimans is the one I know). There is a claim in various articles that a local variety called ‘koproradiko’ or ‘mari’ is eaten in Crete as a salad ingredient, or boiled, but it occurs in so many places with exactly the same phrasing that I suspect it’s copied from a single source, and I can’t find anything to back it up. They’re eaten in Greece in general, though, as one of many plants under the label ‘horta’, and are known there as ‘radikia’. ‘Horta vrasta’, which seems to be literally ‘boiled greens’ is possibly the most authentically historical way to eat them. Blanched leaves (grown under cover) are sometimes seen in salads in vegetarian restaurants here in Ireland, too, and they’re occasionally used in French cuisine.
E. Lewis Sturtevant, ‘A Study of the Dandelion’, The American Naturalist, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Jan., 1886), pp. 5-9
Harold McGee, On Food And Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen
Nawal Nasrallah, Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchens
Peter Brears, Cooking and Dining in Medieval England
Encyclopedia Brittannica, 1911 Edition