A recent article has linked flooding and the resulting clean-up to the spread of invasive species such as purple loosestrife and Japanese knotweed. We have already explored how invasive species benefit from urbanization and warming conditions, and now it looks as though we can add rising waters to that list. While these contributing factors rise as well, it almost seems as though there is no end to the competitive advantages invasive species have over their native counterparts. They seem to literally capitalize on catastrophe. In regards to the spread of Japanese knotweed, the Huffington Post article reads, “It spreads quickly on riverbanks, floodplains and roadsides, choking out native plants, degrading habitats of fish, birds and insects and weakening stream banks.” The article mentions how bare banks which were wiped clean by floods are the perfect sites for the spread of such species, which take their cue to claim new territory.
Increasingly, however, it appears as though invasives have entered one territory they may not find as welcoming: our dinner plates. Invasive cuisine is spreading in popularity almost as quickly as the weeds themselves. (Almost as quickly, click here to watch Japanese knotweed grow an astonishing 3 ft in 3 weeks.) In what can be called a novel approach to eradicating invasives, the conversation has turned from solely ecological to gastronomical in nature. Chefs, authors, and even the New York Times have all served up the latest on the subject. Eat the Invaders, a website encouraging this conservation consumption, has the subtitle: “Fighting invasive species, one bite at a time”. Perhaps prescribing to modifications of our ancient wisdom is just what these times call for. The website points out that early colonists, rather than wrestling with dandelions, consumed their leaves and made wine from their flowers. If you can’t beat it, eat it? Indeed, if there is one thing we have always done well, it is to consume.
Keeping with current trends, members of the Highland Park chapter of the Native Plant Society of New Jersey have brought in invasive species for all to devour. Among the edible invasives were Autumn olive berries, garlic mustard pesto, and more recently, a kind of Japanese knotweed compote which can be used as a pie filling or eaten just like applesauce. Despite initial trepidation, the consensus was that invasives are admittedly delicious. The incorporation of invasives into local cuisine is part of a growing effort to harness our incredible power to modify our ecosystems for good rather than evil. The New Jersey Invasive Species Strike Team (NJISST), a non-profit organization which targets invasive species in the state, prominently displays a recipe page for invasives on their website. Their recipes are not limited to plants, and one can find instructions on how to cook venison chili and BBQ Canada goose, pointing to the over-abundance of other species in the Garden State.
I caught up with one invasive forager, Carly Olmstead from Bedminster, NJ. She harvests wineberries from woodland areas and makes preserves which she then delivers to neighbors and friends. Her goodwill spreads well on toast and in her neighborhood. The taste of the tart wineberries is similar to that of raspberries, and they can be used in many of the same ways. Where can you find them? Olmstead tells us, “wild wineberries peak in mid to late summer. It can depend on the rain and sun and will vary a bit, but the month of July is normally a good time to look for them.” One of Olmstead’s local haunts is Natirar, which has a host of wineberry bushes along a back fence on the main walking loop. She recalls the summer of 2009 as one of the most productive seasons in recent memory, “That summer was incredible because we were able to collect a little over 5 lbs in an hour and fifteen minute period, just after dinner and before sunset.” A large harvest can produce multiple jars of wineberry jam, and collecting them is not only an enjoyable activity, but one that may prevent the uninhibited spread of an invasive species. Birds ingest the berries and distribute them to farther and wider ranges. When humans ingest them, the reproductive abilities of the tasty red berries literally go down the drain.
A major competitive advantage of invasives has been their lack of natural predators. When they invade new areas, they often leave their old enemies behind. As Dr. Al Cofrancesco, director of the Army Corps’ Invasive Species Center, told the Huffington Post, “There are things that keep them in natural balance. The problem occurs is when we move into areas where they don’t have those natural controls or regulators and they expand very rapidly”. In the absence of these natural controls, humans have emerged–armed with their appetites–as a ready regulator. With the seemingly undeterred invasion of a growing number of aggressive species, perhaps when life gives you kudzu… you should make kudzu tea.
Among the incredibly edible invasives in our region are:
A word of caution: Many invasive species grow in areas where there are pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides, or other chemicals sprayed. Roots can also take up toxins present in the soils at disturbed sites.