Omnivore, carnivore, herbivore, locavore, vegan, freegan, paleo, etc.—there are so many diets and lifestyles to explore and follow, each with their own body of ethical, biological, and practical reasons. One diet in particular that’s caught my attention lately is invasivorism. Essentially, invasivores focus on consuming invasive species in order to control those populations and thus eventually restore ecosystem balance. It’s an added benefit that many invasive species are actually quite nutritious for humans (but let’s not emphasize that too much, lest the foods become too desirable and intentionally farmed!).
According to the National Wildlife Federation, an invasive species is “any kind of living organism that is not native to an ecosystem and causes harm.” Invaders can change the fabric of an ecosystem by out-competing and killing off native species, decreasing diversity, spreading particular diseases, and altering the food web. These are just a few examples of the multitude of complex issues associated with invasive species.
The term “invaders” certainly sounds threatening and malicious, and I often hear people speak the word with a tone of anger, even hatred. But let’s not forget that these species were usually introduced to foreign ecosystems through human behaviors. Now they’re only doing what they can to survive, just like any other organism. Whether intentionally or not, we humans are largely responsible for the complicated disturbances rippling throughout ecosystems. Invasivorism is a small reach towards finding actions that can, hopefully, have some sort of positive effect.
If you have any interest in foraging for wild food, I think it’s worth your while to be able to identify invasives and consider how you’ll relate to them, hopefully with the best big-picture intentions for ecosystem health. While invasives include any type of organism, for the scope of this article (and in my present-day life), I’m focusing on plants. Below, I discuss Garlic Mustard, Japanese Knotweed, and Wineberries, three types of edible invasive plants in Pennsylvania and a few ideas for how to approach, harvest, and eat.
Alliaria petiolata comes from Europe and can be found all throughout the US. invasivore.org provides some concise information on how Garlic Mustard disturbs the ecosystem, particularly through direct competition and negatively altering soil chemistry in its growing area. Garlic Mustard spreads only through seed, which is hopeful news, because it means that if you harvest the whole plant (make sure you’ve plucked the whole thing including roots) before it goes to seed in early spring, you can slowly reduce the population of it in the chosen harvesting area.
The easiest ways to incorporate Garlic Mustard in your diet are to toss the fresh leaves into any salad, or, my personal favorite, make wild pesto with it. You can add it to an existing recipe or base the recipe around it to use up larger amounts of the plant. If you want to be meticulous about discarding unused parts of the plant, such as large stems and root material, consider drying it out and then burning it in your next campfire.
Sometimes called False Bamboo, this plant is often found in disturbed areas and especially near rivers and streams. It’s a notorious invasive that spreads rapidly through multiple ways such as seed dispersal and stems shooting from its strong rhizome system. Its roots are unimaginably hardy and can even travel underneath and shoot up from concrete! It grows densely and tends to block out any other kind of native vegetation.
In Japan, Knotweed was prized as a nutritious mountain vegetable. Young shoots were harvested, peeled, and lightly cooked, or perhaps pickled. The roots are also extremely high in the potent medicinal compound Resveratrol, among other compounds.
Herbalists recommend tincturing the roots to include in multi-use medicines good for many conditions including Lyme’s Disease. If you stumble across a young Japanese Knotweed plant, try digging up the roots and young shoots for medicine and food—just be careful to dig up all of the root and rhizome material. If you find older and taller plants, it is recommended to leave it for professional removal, as the rhizome system will be too large to dig up entirely.
And now, for the most relevant plant for the month of July: Wineberries! Rubus phoenicolasius, also originating from Asia, is an invasive shrub/vine found in disturbed and sunny areas. Be careful when searching for it, as it tends to grow in conditions also loved by Poison Ivy. New York Invasive Species Information notes that Wineberries create “impenetrable thickets in natural areas, making the habitat unusable for some species and creating hiding places for others,” but also that “there has been no study to date documenting its specific impact on native species.” Wineberries are also easier to dig up than Knotweed and seem to present less of an intense threat.
The plant spreads largely through seed, which usually must be scarified through the digestive system of an animal to germinate. This is particularly important to note: several small woodland creatures now depend on this berry for food. In these cases, perhaps leaving many of the plants isn’t the worst idea. Some naturalists have recommended that it is beneficial for humans to harvest many of these berries, while leaving some amount near the forest floor. This way, we reduce the overall amount of seed traveling through their bellies and butts, but we don’t get rid of it entirely.
Besides, wineberries are really delicious and can be used the same way you would use a raspberry. If you’re not sure how to identify wineberries, look for hairy red stems and berries that are often slightly more orange than a raspberry. Also note that wineberries stay enclosed in their sepals until shortly before ripe. Get out foraging for your local wineberries before it’s too late—your tastebuds will thank you!
While it’s unpractical to solely consume invasive species, I am in favor of incorporating them into your diet. Particularly, if you can be sure your actions are slowly reducing the population (such as harvesting the whole Garlic Mustard plant before it has gone to seed), why not give it a try? Slow but sure human removal may sometimes be a better option than widespread chemical wipe-out, which may be too sudden and throw off an adapting ecosystem. Plus, lots of invasive species are healthy and medicinal. Better to eat them than to hate them, right?