As I write this, spring has truly sprung in South Carolina. As if overnight, the trees have leaves, the azaleas are in full bloom, and there’s pollen covering our cars. One of the first flowers to open its petals is the humble dandelion. I love their bright yellow heads, popping up over the grass. My childhood memories are peppered with scenes of picking dandelions, making wishes, and blowing their fluffy heads.
But as much as I love dandelions, many of my neighbors see them as an eye sore, scarring their green lawns. Just the other day, my neighbor apologized for the dandelions in his yard and said he’d have to get some weed killer to get rid of them. Why are these yellow beauties seen as natural to some, but a nuisance to others?
The History of Dandelions in the United States
The conversation with my neighbor got me thinking – are dandelions weeds? What are their origins? And can’t you eat dandelions?
After a little online research, I learned that dandelions have been used as food and medicine by humans for much of recorded history. They’re mentioned in writings by the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, and have been used in Chinese traditional medicine for over a thousand years.
Even more interesting, it’s thought that dandelions came to North America on the Mayflower to be used for their medicinal benefits by the Pilgrims. With limited cargo space and a trip to an unknown land, dandelions must have been pretty special to have been chosen for the journey.
From Beneficial Plant to Weed
So what turned dandelions from medicinal super food to undesirable weed? The short answer is MARKETING.
With the post-WWII boom and creation of suburbia, the lawn became a status symbol for the average American. Keeping up with the Jones was in full effect in the suburbs, and HOAs (Home Owners Associations) made sure that homes and lawns were kept up to neighborhood standards lest someone’s shabby lot brought down everyone else’s property value.
While there’s a natural inclination for humans to compete, culture, media, and advertising also plays on our sensibilities and exploits our foibles. The American capitalist system has the habit of creating products we never knew we needed, and then making them indispensable. Hence, the ascendance of lawn culture fueled a new lawn industry that includes residential landscaping, lawnmowers, weed wackers, leaf blowers, lawn seed and feed, weed killer, and more.
Unfortunately for the dandelion, its bright yellow head made it a highly visible target for the weed killer industry. RoundUp, developed by Monsanto and bought out by Bayer in 2018, leaned in hard on this concept of competitive lawn culture. Check out this ad:
RoundUp is not the only culprit. As of 2010, more than 750 glyphosate (the active ingredient in RoundUp) products are on the market. Even with the bad press, lawsuits, and false advertising claims filed against Monsanto and the use of glyphosate, these residential weed killers are still sold everywhere, and they use dandelions as their weed of distinction. Here are some examples:
The Dangers of Marketing
As someone who’s worked in marketing for over a decade, I can see the good and bad within my industry. Marketing is about creating a brand, a warm fuzzy feeling when you see a logo, and getting you to part ways with your money. This can be used for good, but it’s very easy to see how it can be used for bad, also.
The general public may not be aware of our susceptibility to marketing. Marketing uses all the tricks to get you to do something – fear, envy, admiration, inspiration, trust. Abusing someone’s trust is probably the most egregious crime in marketing and advertising. The American public seems to have an inherent trust in what the media (including advertising) tells us. They wouldn’t sell us something that’s harmful, right? They wouldn’t make false claims just to get us to buy something, right? Unfortunately, that’s just not true. And with a lack of oversight, regulations, and consumer protection within the United States, many corporations will abuse your trust in order to sell more and create more profit for their stakeholders.
The humble dandelion has become a casualty of the lawn industry. First, they gave us lawns. Then, they told us to have the best lawns or else our neighbors would judge us. Finally, they told us that beautiful, useful dandelions were weeds, and that they have the perfect product to get rid of them. What they didn’t tell us is that this product not only kills “weeds”, it kills everything, including animals – wildlife, pets, and humans.
As a marketer, I’d like to find a way to combat these false notions and harmful products with what I call ethical marketing. Unfortunately, Mother Nature isn’t a brand with a big marketing budget. For too long, no one has been on her side promoting her benefits, and the reality that she provides everything we need. In the technology age, we’ve come to believe that we’re smarter than the natural world and that we can create products that will heal our illnesses, get rid of our annoyances, and make our lives so easy that we never have to lift a finger.
Well, reality is coming round to bite us in the ass. Increases in cancer, chronic disease, lifestyle diseases, autism, and climate change is showing us how myopic we’ve been in our thinking. It’s time for us to be better stewards of our planet, and use nature’s bounty to help and heal us. Who’s going to run that worldwide marketing campaign?
Let’s Start with the Dandelion
Let us start with dispelling the myth that dandelions are weeds. They are food for pollinators, wildlife, and even humans. They are medicine – dandelions are more nutritious than most of the vegetables in our garden! Dandelions are good for your lawn. Their wide-spreading roots loosen hard-packed soil, aerate the earth and help reduce erosion. The deep taproot pulls nutrients such as calcium from deep in the soil and makes them available to other plants. Dandelions actually fertilize the grass.
Cast off the chains of your neighbors’ judgement. Educate your friends on how wonderful dandelions are. Enough with getting down on your knees and pulling out these “weeds” from their roots. Go outside and blow the fluffy dandelion heads again like a child. While technology has promised us an easier life, I think we’re starting to realize it has done the opposite by creating new, impossible expectations.
At the very least, let’s see if we can educate people about what weed killer really does. More than seven million wild birds are estimated to die annually due to the use of lawn pesticides. Pollinators like bees are killed by the millions due to the use of herbicides and pesticides. Thirty million acres of the United States are lawns, and an estimated 80 million pounds of pesticides are used on them annually. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that “homeowners use up to ten times more chemical pesticides per acre on their lawns than farmers use on crops.”