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If You Can’t Beat ’Em, Eat ’Em

As 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?”

“No,” 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 results.

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, no?

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.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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