How to curb invasive species? Eat 'em

Karen Monger says there's a more sustainable alternative to culling, pulling, or poisoning invasive plants: Put them on the dinner table.

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Autumn olive berries were imported from Asia and now grow in New England as a wild, and harmful, invasive species. Connecticut blogger Karen Monger has a solution to battling the spread of invasive plant species. Eat them.

One gardener’s weed is another’s essential ingredient.

Karen Monger, a community blogger in Norwich, Conn., wants to change the way New Englanders consider invasive species, whether it's garlic mustard or autumn olives. There’s a more sustainable alternative to culling, pulling, or poisoning them, she says.

“Eating the invaders is a favorite theme for me and my family,” says Ms. Monger, who lives in Norwich, Conn.

That’s right – Monger wants people to eat the weeds. But, and she can’t stress this enough, she wants people to understand that foraging for edible invasives is not a lark. And so she has launched the blog

“There is a truly responsible way to do it,” Monger says.

That means, don’t plant invasive species. Don’t sell them; in fact, Connecticut state law prohibits the sale of invasive species. Above all, Monger says, people need to learn how to identify plants. That’s the first, and perhaps most important, rule of foraging, she says.

Her blog chronicles her and her family’s search for wild edible plants across the region. Photographs help readers recognize the plants. She also shares recipes that use native and invasive weeds.

A recent post featured wild autumn olive berries. Monger, a former pastry chef, suggests using the bright red, somewhat sour berry in oatmeal or to make jam and fruit leather.

It also makes a wonderful jelly, she says. “They are freakishly healthy for you, but they are really bad for the environment. They alter the soil competition, so I hope people don't plant them on purpose.”

The plant was introduced as an ornamental in the mid-1830s from China, Korea, and Japan, according to Monger’s blog. The wild autumn olive,
which has silvery leaves, reproduces easily and survives well in poor soil, which Connecticut has in abundance.

The Connecticut Audubon Society estimates the state spends more than $500 million a year, between private and public monies, to eradicate invasive species.

Monger connects with other foragers, including employees in the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the Connecticut Department of Transportation; master gardeners; and land conservation managers. She also recently started volunteering with the Connecticut Invasive Plant Working Group (CIPWG).

Although the CIPWG hasn’t specifically addressed the topic of foraging for edible invasives, people occasionally discuss it informally at meetings, says Donna Ellis, co-chair of the CIPWG at the University of Connecticut’s Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture.

Monger develops each of her recipes. Whether its sumac tea or grilled garlic mustard, Monger says she wants people to learn how they can take these resources and make something that tastes good.

“People are more likely to try it if it’s not scary looking,” she says.

Monger and her husband started foraging for wild edibles about eight years ago, just after their daughter was born. They had started spending more time outdoors, walking through the woods. Now and again, he’d make an offhand comment about how certain plants resembled those from his native Hungary.

“My husband has a slightly more respectful take on foraging. He has a history of doing it as a child,” she says. She herself comes from the rural town of Colchester, Conn., and remembers picking and eating wild berries.

Monger and her husband decided practical experience would be the best way to learn. The found about Wildman Steve Brill, who leads people on hikes and teaches them which weeds to eat and which to leave alone. They also have hiked with Russ Cohen of Massachusetts, who also leads people on foraging hikes.

Monger stresses that people should never eat anything from the wild without consulting an expert. People can find experts through their local Native Plant Society. In Connecticut, they can consult the Invasive Plants Council.

Another rule of foraging in the wild is to take small bites. Even when someone knows they have the right, nonpoisonous, wild plant just a small taste is recommended.

Monger’s blog gets up to 700 hits a day. Lately she’s fielded recipe requests from Appalachia and an elementary school student in Maine, who asked her for help on a school report.

“I don’t mind sharing the information,” she says. “I feel the need to really focus on invasives because they’re bad. People want this information badly.”

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