Monday, August 11, 2014

Meatless Monday: Eating Invasives

“If you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em” is the mantra of both urban foragers like “Wildman” Steve Brill and chefs, including New Haven's Bun Lai, whose restaurant features an Invasive Species Menu. In fact, the European green crab featured on Bun’s menu is one of the dozen invasive animals hunted by Jackson Landers, who documented his adventures in Eating Aliens.

Invasive animals often make themselves known in dramatic ways — leaping into boats  (Asian carp) or rooting in farmers’ fields (feral pigs). A quieter, even more pervasive threat, comes from the invasive plants that are taking over our landscape. They are such a problem that many states have formed Invasive Plant Working Groups with action plans and corps of volunteers who attempt to eradicate these invaders when possible and, at the very least, keep them from spreading. A key component of any successful program is educational outreach, alerting the public to the problem and enlisting their help in containing it. Here is a link to the group at UConn. 

What is an invasive species? In short, it is a plant or animal introduced by humans, intentionally or accidentally, to a new location where it has taken hold to such an extent that it has crowded out or become a threat to resident native species.

One such species common along roadsides, forest edges, and city lots in Connecticut is Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum) also known as Japanese bamboo. Introduced as an ornamental in park settings in the 1870s, it was used to control erosion along roadsides in the 60s and 70s. It has since gotten out of control. This beautiful plant is easily identified by its hollow, red stems [more about this later]. 

Knotweed in an urban lot in May

Japanese knotweed can thrive under a variety of growing conditions; it can even withstand roadside salt and tolerates drought. Once established, this vigorous growing plant is difficult to eradicate. Its seeds germinate under a wide range of conditions. Established plants spread vigorously by producing new stems from long, deep-growing rhizomes; root fragments created when you pull up or dig up the plant can repopulate! Thus, the best way to control it is to cut it back before it flowers.

This invasive plant does have some culinary uses. The young shoots have a lemony taste. Steve Brill and others have used these for making pie and jam. You will find some recipe ideas here. Bun Lai created a beverage “Knot Your Mother’s Lemonade.” 

But, here’s the thing. It’s fine to harvest and eat invasives in a manner that will help curb the population [and if you know that the the site where you harvest is free of lead, pesticides, and other contaminants]. But, you have to be extremely cautious not to spread the invasive while you are gathering it. Remember what I said about knotweed propagating by root fragments?

Back to the stems… The red stems contain reservatol, the chemical in red wine and grape juice that may have heart healthy properties. Since Japanese knotweed is a cheaper source of this chemical than grapes, this plant is now being cultivated and harvested for medicinal use. The majority of the reservatol supplements sold today are manufactured from Japanese knotweed extract.

What does it mean to cultivate an invasive? What if it escapes and multiplies where it is not wanted? Are there adequate measures in place to keep this from happening? 

Take care when dealing with invasives or you might inadvertently cause harm when you really meant to do something good.

Happy Monday. Have a great week!

On Mondays I often blog on food, food issues, or gardening in support of Meatless Monday, one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project, founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal health and the health of our planet.”

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