I grew up on a farm, not far from where I live now. No one has lived there since my parents sold the place, but there was some road work done out front about a decade ago with heavy excavation. Someone sure did move in then, and fast—Japanese knotweed. Since the first shoots emerged from the freshly disturbed ditch 10 years ago, it has steadily crept up my old driveway, past the barn, and has pretty much swallowed my favorite old raspberry patch.
I hate watching this. It pains me every time I drive by, and if the place weren’t plastered with “No Trespassing” signs, I’d surely step in and do something about it.
I’m sure a lot of you can relate to this scenario, a non-native plant showing up in a place that you love and changing it. It’s difficult to avoid having a knee-jerk reaction to something that’s perceived as a threat to something you want to protect. Fear-based reactions do have a purposeful place in our evolution, say, if we’re being charged by a grizzly bear. But non-native plants are not grizzlies, yet our knee-jerk reaction to seeing them on our landscape has been to charge with all guns—or chemicals—blazing.
I’m not suggesting that we stand idly by and not be active stewards of the places we love, but I do think it’s worth evaluating which is the bigger threat—invasive plants or chemical compounds that will persist in our soil, water, and the tissues of every living thing that tries to grow there, including our children. While we may choose to use herbicides as part of our approach, I think the solution should be a multifaceted effort including cutting, mowing, burning, solarizing, pulling, and, my personal favorite, eating.
While the phrase “If you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em.” might seem quaint, I think if more of us knew how legitimately delicious some of our invasive plants are, we might stop seeing them purely as enemies, and instead as a free meal. I bet that would lead to a whole lot of garlic mustard disappearing from your ramp patch it’s been encroaching on and a mess of knotweed getting cut from your fiddlehead spot. Start with my three favorite tenacious flavors of spring. They’re hard to miss if you look outside, and hard not to love in the kitchen. Don’t be shy—they’re generally an “all-you-can-eat” buffet.
Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata)
Garlic mustard is the answer to your arugula-loving prayers when it’s still too early for arugula and dandelions haven’t sized up enough for salad yet. It’s a pungent, biennial plant that was brought to North America from the British Isles as a culinary crop. There’s archaeological evidence of people eating garlic mustard up to 6,000 years ago. It’s likely due to our fondness of it as a food that it can now be found across the globe and has earned the title of “the most invasive plant on the planet.”
While it might feel like garlic mustard is committing a hostile world takeover, there’s new research showing that it might not be forever. Garlic mustard dominates early in its life cycle by secreting compounds that thwart the growth of other nearby plants. But these studies show that over time, secretion slows to a complete stop after 20 to 30 years, allowing native plants to move back in.
Interestingly, there is also a strong correlation between the success of garlic mustard and density of whitetail deer, whose populations are quite high right now. Whitetails opt for native forbs rather than garlic mustard, so the more deer a place has, the more garlic mustard it’s likely to hold, since the deer eat all its competition and give it a major advantage over existing native plants. This seems like a great place for humans to step in and do a little overgrazing of our own.
I see garlic mustard most often on woodland edges with at least partial sun, but it’s unique in that it can also tolerate shade. It often starts on the edge but expands back behind the tree line and begins to dominate the forest understory. The plant is edible from root, which you can grate and mix with vinegar for this horseradish-style condiment, all the way to seed pod, which you can snack on raw or pickled.
I like to eat the young leaves from the bushy basal rosette of the first-year plant and the leaves and flowering tops from the second-year plant, just before the flowers open, when they look and cook like broccoli raab. At this stage in growth, I’ll harvest a lot and eat those succulent stems and flower buds fresh. The bulk of the leaves will get blanched and frozen or made into big batches of pesto, vinaigrette, saag, chimichurri, and other herby, green sauces to freeze. It’s a real treat to pull out that bright, green flavor in February.
Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica) As much as I try not to anthropomorphize and attribute negative character traits to a plant, I will admit, Japanese knotweed is kind of a bully. I’ve seen it bust through all manner of basements, barns, and driveways. Lucky for us, it tastes just like rhubarb, and it’s ready to harvest two weeks earlier. You want to harvest it young by cutting or snapping off the shoots when they’re 1 to 2 feet tall, and before they’ve fully leafed out and look like big, fat, red and green asparagus. As always, you’ll want to make sure you’re harvesting from a clean place, so avoid the patch in the roadside ditch, and keep your eyes peeled for last year’s tall, bamboo-like canes crowding someone’s sideyard or a farmer’s field. They’re usually happy to let you take all you can carry.
Many people cook knotweed as a savory vegetable, but I don’t love it that way. I think it just goes limp and loses its luster. I think it really shines as a sweet or tangy treat. I have substituted it for rhubarb in all my favorite classics, including strawberry rhubarb jam, pie, compote, sauce, chutney, crumble, crisp, and candy, and I have loved every version. I also use a lot of it raw, sliced into little rings and quick-pickled to replace cucumber pickle chips on burgers and sandwiches. My favorite spring party or picnic snack is to take knotweed shoots thicker than my thumb, cut them into 4-inch sections, slice those in half the long way, fill the hollow with a soft cheese like chevre or cream cheese, drizzle them all with honey, and finish with cracked pepper or a handful of chopped sorrel for a super easy, bright, and beautiful finger food.
Don’t throw your scraps in the compost or they’ll make themselves at home in your yard. Bag any leftover bits in the trash. This goes for all invasive plants, but especially knotweed because it can regenerate from a very small amount of tissue.
Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) Black Locust is hands down one of the most heavenly smells on earth, and when you start getting wafts of its heady perfume on the breezes of May and June, that’s your cue to go pick. There’s a short window to harvest the blossoms for food. They go from divine to bland in just the span of a week, and once you start to see the fallen petals littering the ground like snow, they’ve passed their peak.
Keep your eyes peeled for colonies of gnarly-branched trees with deeply furrowed, gray-brown bark in anthropogenic areas, waterways, roadways, and field edges. They’ll be dripping with clusters of white, pea-like, perfumey flowers when the time is right. Look a little closer before you reach in for a handful, since the branches have thorns. If you find a grove of young trees, you can pick a lot of blossoms quickly.
A fruit-picking basket that straps around your waist or shoulders is helpful here so you can use of both hands. The young branches are fairly flexible and you can hold with one hand while you strip the blossoms off the stems and into your basket. In no time, you’ll have what looks like a big bowl of popcorn, and you can eat them like popcorn by the handful.
They taste like a fresh spring pea, but with a snappy texture and a hint of nectar. I love to use them fresh in both garden and fruit salads, to top sandwiches, breakfast bowls and lettuce cups, to garnish chicken or fish, and to stir into soups and hot cereal. They also freeze like a dream without any prep, you can just fill storage containers with them raw, pop them in the freezer, and they’ll hold their flavor and texture for months.