You Can’t Beat ’Em, Eat ’Em
I was walking home a few weeks ago with some stalks of Japanese
Knotweed sticking out of the bag hanging on the back of my
stroller, an acquaintance asked me, horrified, “You’re not
going to plant those, are you?”
I said, “I’m going to eat them.”
I knew what he meant. Knotweed is considered an invasive plant
across the northeast. It’s wickedly hard to get rid of, as
it grows an extensive and far-reaching network of underground
roots, and it generates high dense thickets that not much
else can directly coexist with. Many people I know have spent
many a hard day’s yardwork beating it back, with short-lived
It’s also tasty—the young shoots are a remarkable rhubarb
doppelganger, heavenly in pie or as a sauce on pancakes. If
only they stayed young for longer.
Apparently the plant is also used as a source of resveratrol—the
thing in red wine that helps you live longer, or at least
one of them—for nutritional supplements. I was actually planning
to experiment with making idatori (the japanese name of the
plant) tea for this purpose with the stalks I’d been queried
about, as they were a bit old and tough for baking with.
I admit that when I first started experimenting with knotweed,
I got a bit of a perverse pleasure from feeding it to people
who had sworn eternal vendettas against it in their yards.
Friends even made me a shirt with the silhouette of the plant
on the front. A little perspective shift is always healthy,
Of course I was mostly thinking of it as a “weed,” in the
sense of it being a plant that is culturally considered useless,
even despised, for little reason, much like the dandelion,
and I liked the exercise of moving it instead to the category
of “wild edible.”
But dandelions, while not native, are not considered “invasive
plants.” Only finicky homeowners and corporate groundskeepers
are trying to extirpate them, not scientific and governmental
bodies concerned with the integrity of their natural environment.
Knotweed on the other hand. . . . Well, the National Park
Service describes it like this: “It spreads quickly to form
dense thickets that exclude native vegetation and greatly
alter natural ecosystems. Japanese knotweed poses a significant
threat to riparian areas, where it can survive severe floods
and rapidly colonize scoured shores and islands.” It’s on
the New York State Invasive Plant Council’s Top 20 list. Some
state parks have covered areas where it grows with impermeable
cover for several years running in an attempt to kill it off.
I got to that Top 20 list from a call to action posted by
the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, exhorting ecologically minded
folks everywhere to eat yet another tasty but pernicious invasive:
garlic mustard, which apparently makes a great cooking green
and pesto. The BBG says that while they usually recommend
against wild harvesting of plants, they’d like to see garlic
mustard “culled to oblivion,” as it is replacing native wildflowers
at a disturbing rate and, unlike many invasives, isn’t limited
to disturbed soil, but is headed right into the heart of intact
woodlands. “We actively encourage you to get out there and
harvest with a vengeance,” they say.
It’s a neat idea: Free food, protect your native ecosystem.
Wild harvesting without the need for the usual care about
how much you take when. Even if it doesn’t really reduce numbers
(and certainly my own puny harvesting efforts have had zilch
effect on the knotweed stands in our neighborhood, or even
in our yard), it’ll lead to a few more people being able to
identify the stuff.
But it’s also an odd idea. If (and admittedly it’s a big if)
large numbers of people who formerly regarded these plants
as pests grow to like eating them, mightn’t that actually
put a brake on their being “culled to oblivion”? Might they
even be planted on purpose, in fact, just like they were originally
before they “escaped”?
I realize this is a bit of a stretch to be worrying about,
but I’m hopelessly metaphorically minded. What does it mean
to take sustenance from an invader? Is this really about using
free calories to enlist foot soliders (mouth solidiers?) in
the plant invasives war? Or, given its likely lack of actual
tactical significance, perhaps it is more of an exercise in
sitting with contradictions, in cultivating an attitude of
abundance even in an imperfect and ever-changing world, much
like building garden walls from concrete debris or rot-resistant
lumber from wasteful mountains of recycled plastic, or even
like building community around facing down a common enemy.
I guess that’s something worth pondering over a couple more
seasons of pesto and pie.