On April 16 2019, the Facebook page “Veggie Soul” shared a popular meme (archived here), containing several purported facts about the plant:
The text, which was accompanied by an image of dandelions, stated:
Dandelions are NOT weeds, but are from the same family as sunflowers.
1 cup of dandelion greens – 535% of your daily recommended vitamin K and 112% of your vitamin A.
A Dandelion Seed can travel up to 5 miles before it lands.
Every part of the Dandelion is edible.
Up until the 1800’s, dandelions were seen as extremely beneficial. People would remove grass to plant dandelions.
The meme’s first claim was that dandelions are not weeds, and in fact come from the same family as sunflowers. However, one does not preclude the other. The term “weed” by definition does not classify any cultivar per se, but rather refers to the subjective desirability of any given plant matter:
: a plant that is not valued where it is growing and is usually of vigorous growth
especially : one that tends to overgrow or choke out more desirable plants
This means that dandelions, like any other plant, can potentially be a weed under the right circumstances. However, dandelions do not appear on the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s list of noxious weeds. The second part of this claim is that dandelions and sunflowers are part of the same family, which is true.
The next part of the meme claimed that one cup of dandelion greens contains 535 percent of a person’s daily recommended value of Vitamin K and 112 percent of the daily recommended value for Vitamin A. Those calculations appeared to come from an infographic not cited on the meme.
According to the USDA, one cup of dandelion greens contained 5589 IU of Vitamin A, and 428.1 µg of Vitamin K. Recommended daily value of Vitamin A for adults and children over four is 900 micrograms (µg) and Vitamin K is 120 micrograms. With those given parameters, one cup of dandelion greens provided 621 percent of a person’s daily value of Vitamin A, and 356.8 percent for Vitamin K. Overall, the claims of high levels of Vitamins A and K were true, although the percentages we found were not identical.
The meme’s third claim, that dandelion seeds were able to travel as far as five miles from the plant, is more off-base. An undated BBC Science Focus article reports:
A 2003 study at the University of Regensburg in Germany found that 99.5 per cent of dandelion seeds land within 10 metres of their parent. That’s because the seed ‘parachute’ falls at about 30cm per second and dandelions only grow about 30cm high. So that gives each seed just one second of flight time to be blown sideways by the wind to its new home… dandelion seeds can go much further and the study estimated that 0.014 per cent — about one in 7,000, would travel more than a kilometre.
A kilometer is slightly over half a mile, far short of the five miles (which comes out to around eight kilometers) claimed in the meme. However a 2017 Popular Science article reported that research had found that dandelion seeds can sometimes “travel 100 miles on the wind, and even drift over the sea to repopulate islands decimated by volcanoes.” A 2018 CBC article said that dandelion seeds are “the farthest travelling passive flying structure that we know of in the plant world, flying up to 100 kilometres.”
So once again, the meme seemed to understate its claims —science reporting from 2017 and 2018 indicated possible distances that dandelion seeds travel at “100 kilometers” to “100 miles on the wind, and even … over the sea.”
A fourth claim held that every part of the dandelion is edible, which is also true — you can even eat its roots:
All parts of a Dandelion are edible! The leaves can be thrown uncooked into a salad or cooked (recommended in Edible Wild Plants: Eastern/Central North America Peterson Field Guide to boil the leaves for about 5 minutes). You can also cook the roots (boil 20-30 min) or roasted and ground into coffee. (Leaves are best in spring and roots are best in the fall.)
Finally, the meme said that until the 1800s, dandelions were prized and seen as “beneficial,” and that people would remove lawns to plant dandelions. The first part of that claim was again subjective, as dandelions are still harvested by gardeners and sold in stores in multiple forms:
Dandelions are among the most expensive items in the grocery store. The roots are dried and sold as a no-caffeine coffee substitute — for $31.75 a pound. Dandelions out-price prime rib, swordfish and lobster. They appear in produce and other sections, and even at the liquor store. You can enjoy a complete meal, from salad greens to dandelion quiche, followed by dandelion ice cream, washed down with dandelion wine.
So it is not exactly objectively true that dandelions have been entirely treated as worthless commercially or overall, and “dandelion greens” are a fairly common ingredient in salads. And the claim that people through the 1800s replaced lawns with dandelions is fairly common, repeated without citation across the internet.
But the claim itself appears to primarily focus on the popularity of lawns in the United States, which moonlights in suburbia as a status symbol at best and a cudgel at worst and has proven again and again to be an unexpectedly political issue. Its social value is widely attributed to the influence of developer William Levitt and his Levittown homes in post-war America, introducing what is not infrequently described as “tyranny” or “obsession” over lawn maintenance:
Lawns offered a metaphor for, if not a full mimcry of, the new national highway system, unifying the country visually if not politically. And symbolically if not actually. During a time of upheaval, the lawn suggested a sense of structure and calm.
Nearly any history of lawns in the United States mentions Levittown as a pivotal point in their development and near ubiquity:
In the middle of the 20th century, three overlapping developments helped promote the lawn across North America. The first was Levittown, one of the first cookie-cutter affordable-dwelling suburbs, built between 1948 and 1952 by Abraham Levitt and his sons William and Alfred on Long Island. This was the first American suburb to include lawns already in place when the first tenants took possession … The Levitts, who also [built] subdivisions in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Cape Cod, and Puerto Rico (several of them also called Levittown), pioneered the established lawn, which residents were required to keep up but forbidden to fence in. The importance of a neat, weed-free, closely-shorn lawn was promoted intensely in the newsletters that went out to all homeowners in these subdivisions, along with lawn-care advice on how to reach this ideal.
These numbers point to the second factor giving lawns a boost in the ’50s: the need for inexpensive housing to accommodate returning GIs and their young families. These were soldiers, trained in neatness and obedience, and these were the conformist fifties, when everyone was on the watch for signs of Communism and crabgrass. At times, the two seemed morally equivalent … Clover, which takes nitrogen from the air and deposits it in the earth where your grass can use it, was an accepted, even encouraged part of lawns until the early fifties. It only acquired its weed status because the earliest broad-leaf 2,4-D herbicides killed it off along with the dandelions.
While the same lawn histories note that an affection for a grassy yard appeared long before World War II in the United States, enforcement of their presence by codes and social pressure seemed to begin in earnest after the war ended — and presumably, during that time hostility towards dandelions and other disruptors of grass increased. As late as the 1940s, dandelions were still officially tolerated in front yard landscapes.
With that in mind, the last claim made in the meme was inverted — grass was not necessarily seen as a superior cultivar to dandelions so much as the lawn became a culturally mandated part of yards in the years just after World War II. In the years leading up to 2019, many environmentalists and landscape experts began calling for the eradication of the traditional American lawn, often in favor of “natural lawns.”
There was no doubt that people have deliberately cultivated dandelions in the past, but the same was true when the meme was shared in 2019. The meme included a mixture of factual information, minor inaccuracies, and opinion, and its final point about the deliberate cultivation of dandelions over grass was perhaps more accurately characterized as commentary about the prevalence of lawns, not dandelions. Nevertheless, as a cultivar, dandelions continue to maintain popularity and commercial value around the world.