Invasive plants -- from pest to pesto

Foodies learn to sink their teeth into plants that are better known as weeds.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    Some nature centers around the US are hoping people will help stem the rapid spread of garlic mustard by learning to eat it.
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The garlic mustard plant is a pest to ecologists, but surprisingly, it also makes a great pesto.

The waist-high plant, a native of Europe, has overrun woodlands in many US states, crowding out native species. Naturalists across the country have spent decades fighting it – pulling it up, spraying it with herbicides, and even burning it with controlled fires.

Over the past few years, they’ve also tried a novel idea – eating it.

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In April, the Richmond Land Trust in Vermont adopted the motto “If you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em” to expand its group of weed-pulling volunteers along the Winooski River. Its goal was to attract foodies by teaching them about the culinary uses of garlic mustard and providing recipes featuring the pesky plant.

A chef at On the Rise Bakery in Richmond even featured garlic mustard dishes at a Sunday brunch.

“People like the idea of going out and foraging for wild foods, like mushrooms, and fiddlehead ferns, and berries,” says Bradford Elliott, chairman of the trust. “We realized garlic mustard is something they don’t realize they can add to their repertoire.”

But that’s changing as garlic mustard begins to show up on dinner tables nationwide. After all, it was brought to North America as a culinary herb.

In Minneapolis, the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary started promoting garlic mustard’s culinary uses last year by donating it to local restaurants. This year, the sanctuary  handed out garlic mustard recipes during organized weed-pulling events.

In Cleveland, the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes recently held its fourth annual “Garlic Mustard Pestival” and invited local chefs to prepare dishes from the weeds that volunteers collected.

The invasive plant has even garnered enough attention to merit its own cookbook. A couple of years ago, the Kalamazoo Nature Center in Michigan published “Garlic Mustard: From Pest to Pesto.”

Although the weed has gained some interest among cooks, not everyone is eager to eat it, says Nate Beccue, the natural resources specialist at the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes.

“We don’t see hordes of people [wanting] to go out and pick this stuff,” Mr. Beccue says. “It’s a pretty bitter herb, and there’s only so much of it that the average person would need.”

While the intent of publicizing the weed as an edible green might have been to draw more weed pullers, the effort has mostly helped to raise awareness about the threat of invasive plants, he says. In spring, volunteers pull hundreds of pounds of it a day at the peak of the season. Most of it ends up getting composted.

But the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary did see an increase in volunteers who showed up to pull out garlic mustard, including many foodies.

The culinary interest in the weed may be growing slowly, but it definitely is gaining ground due to such promotions by nature centers, says John Thompson, vice chairman of the National Invasive Species Advisory Committee.

“It really took off this spring,” he says. “It’s really sort of ‘in’ now to use it as food.”

Garlic mustard isn’t the only invasive plant that’s being eaten.

Many parts of kudzu, a fast-growing vine that quickly covers any vacant land in the southeastern United States, can be eaten – from leaves to blossoms to root.

Japanese knotweed, which resembles bamboo and is considered one of the worst invasive plants in the eastern US, is now being touted as an alternative to rhubarb in pies.

Mr. Thompson worries, though, about what might happen if these weeds became extremely popular as foods. There’s no problem as long as the demand doesn’t outstrip the supply, he says. But “if your business was harvesting an invasive species ... when you depopulate the area, do you go out of business or do you start farming them?”

Thompson notes the example of dandelions, which pop up as weeds in many American yards.

Some European cultures have always used dandelion greens and other parts of the plant for food. But recently they’ve gone more mainstream.

For upscale restaurants, “it’s sort of the new arugula,” Thompson says.

Last year, supermarkets sold up to9 percent more dandelion greens than the previous year and raked in $2 million in dandelion greens sales in the fiscal year that ended in March, according to FreshLook Marketing.

Dandelions aren’t as big a threat to the environment as garlic mustard, kudzu, and Japanese knotweed. But the plant’s budding transformation into a culinary star gives hope to nature centers that have garlic mustard campaigns.

“I think it’s a great thing,” says Thompson, “as long as it’s the kitchen crafter, and it’s not really a business.” 

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