For more than 300 years, we were a nation of dandelion eaters. Americans took the bitter herb in all three of the elemental edible forms — the raw, the cooked, the bacon-infused. We once brewed a coffee substitute from its roasted roots, and wine from its sweet flowers. Dandelion was used to relieve all kinds of ailments — so many, in fact, that its scientific name, Taraxacum officinale, loosely translates as “the official remedy for disorders.”
These days, on the 400th anniversary of dandelions' arrival in America with European colonists, the once-esteemed weed can be found almost everywhere — except on our plates. I wanted to find out why Americans soured on the dandelion, and whether — like many medicinal or historical foods — it had ever actually been good eating. So I set out to prepare a light dandelion lunch for two.
“I need to source some dandelions,” I told my husband, Paul, in September.
“What,” he said, “an interesting thing to say.”
Dandelions are, according to the UMass Extension Turf Program, one of the most common plants in urban and suburban environments. They are also some of the easiest to identify, even for the novice gardener or forager. Flat rosettes with saw-toothed leaves, their color may vary from light green to emerald tinged with purple. Pale taproots can grow to a length of 20 inches. Flowers are golden yellow, turning into spherical downy seed heads — these are the blowballs beloved by children.
Sourcing our snack remained, ironically, a problem. Without a yard of our own, we’d be dependent on the weed supply off the streets or from neighbors' lawns. There were plenty of greens to be had, but American spending on herbicides — averaging, per the Environmental Protection Agency, $5 billion a year and often targeting dandelions — somewhat weakened my nerve.
America is at war with the dandelion, and has been for almost a century. Perhaps no plant has ever fallen further, faster.
“It is amazing,” explained Anita Sanchez, author of “The Teeth of the Lion: The Story of the Beloved and Despised Dandelion.” “It happened within one human lifetime. It wasn’t like a slow trend; it was like a 180.”
Through the early 20th century, dandelions were still intentionally planted in American gardens, with different varieties for sale from seed catalogs. There were prizes, Sanchez said, for best-tasting dandelion greens at county fairs. Dandelions — and dandelion gatherers — were a visible rite of spring.
“Going for dandelion,” The York Dispatch in Pennsylvania, reported in April 1922, “is a pleasure and a means of spending a period close to nature.”
Then Americans started tending their lawns. Rising rates of suburban homeownership, as well as new technology like lawn mowers, transformed the lawn into a cultural obsession.
“Dandelions somehow were seen as marring that green perfection,” Sanchez explained.
“The lawn,” said Peter Del Tredici, senior research scientist emeritus at Arnold Arboretum, “turns out to be the absolute perfect niche for the dandelion. Its rise in abundance is really tied to this lawn as a cultural artifact.”
Making the fantasy of a perfect lawn into reality required, according to a 1936 Salt Lake City Telegram article, “unremitting care and ceaseless weed eradication.” The recommended course of action was “to get down on hands and knees and gouge out the offending dandelion roots … This takes close attention and back-breaking work, but it is thorough and sure to give results.”
Springtime no longer meant the romantic roadside rituals of dandelion gatherers. The season was now marked by the weed diggers. In May 1936, the Kansas City Star proudly reported that 130 boys and girls had, in a single Missouri town, dug and dumped 5.5 tons of dandelions.
The invention and wide availability of herbicides after World War II made the campaign much easier.
In the ’40s and ’50s, advertisements in newspapers and magazines show women in high heels and short dresses using new products equipped with “no-stoop applicators” and names like Dan-D-Lion, Weed-No-More, and Weedone. Batches of Killer Kemical — one can “enough to kill 1,500 weeds” — sold for less than a dollar. Many relied on the broadleaf herbicide 2,4-D, a component of Agent Orange.
“Dandelions evoke some really powerful emotions in people,” said Sanchez. “I’ve had people tell me they care very much about how their yard looks. They feel it reflects on them … and so they seem to think that that means they are required to use pesticides. They’re not responsible homeowners if they don’t use pesticides.”
My own dad is a veteran of the 1950s fight against the dandelion.
In 1957, he was 10 years old and living in Laramie, Wyo. Digging and poisoning dandelions was a summer chore.
“It’s just what kids did,” he told me. “You’d go down the block in those days and you’d find a bunch of sullen 10-year-old boys either wrestling in the yard … or digging dandelions.”
“I hated doing it,” he remembered. “I wasn’t good at it. … Maybe in two years of digging, I got a taproot. Most of mine broke off sort of midway up. … And sometimes there were huge gouges in the yard.”
“I don’t recall until I was grown up hearing that you could eat dandelions, which seems like an enormous waste,” he said. “Such a terrible waste.”
Fall is not the traditional time to eat dandelion greens.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a fall dandelion leaf,” said Joe Roman, a conservation biologist and editor in chief of the website eattheinvaders.org. “It gets a little bit bitter toward the end of the year.”
I found a US Department of Agriculture article from the late 1920s explaining that bitterness can be mitigated by boiling, a common preparation, as well as through pairings with contrasting flavors — “vinegar or acid dressings help, and so do foods of strong flavor.” Several appealing vintage recipes call for bacon and hot bacon fat to be poured over a bed of raw and bitter greens.
Since the USDA also suggested that “blends of dandelion and other greens are better than the dandelion alone,” I decided to prepare an acidic, lemon vinaigrette-dressed salad that married raw dandelions with the other fall greens growing in our small community garden.
We had radish, turnip, and mustard available, and we’d be able to compare valued leaves with vilified ones. (Since everything’s better with bacon, I spurned it, worried it’d bias the experiment.)
I also was keen to sample the root, which was purported to be nutty in flavor, and, unlike the greens, was actually in season.
“You should get a shovel,” Paul suggested as I headed out the door to gather our lunch. “I don’t think it’s going to pop right out like a radish.”
Indeed it did not, but I got most of a root — which, when I proudly brought it home, Paul aptly described as “looking undomesticated” — as well as a bunch of nice greens.
As a starter, I served a somewhat scientific sampler of different types of naked leaves. Dandelion was the mildest of the four — radish most bitter, and turnip spiciest. Our weed had a pleasant chewiness and tasted watery — in an inoffensive, somewhat vague, somewhat comforting way.
“That just tastes like lettuce,” was Paul’s verdict.
The root we enjoyed peeled and boiled, tossed warm in leftover vinaigrette. I could have eaten a lawnful.
In the age of arugula, I wondered what the big deal was. Our dandelion anniversary lunch wasn’t adventurous eating at all. It was simply a nice salad.
“I think it’s definitely way past time to reevaluate how much we value this plant,” Sanchez told me. “You know, gardeners spend hours down on their knees begging the roses and the tomatoes to grow — and here’s a plant that you can’t kill, no matter how hard you try.”