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Tasty invasives

Garlic mustard

May 12, 2011

As the Upper Delaware region moves swiftly into spring, some of the earliest plants to appear are Japanese knotweed and garlic mustard. These invasive plants are bad news as they out-compete native plants for resources such as sunlight, nutrients and space, resulting in the decline or elimination of food sources for some of the region’s birds, rodents and insects.

Native wildflowers that share the same habitat as garlic mustard—such as trilliums, spring beauty, wild ginger and hepatica—are severely threatened by the aggressive growth of this plant.

One way to reduce the abundance of invasive plants is to consume the edible ones. Garlic mustard, for example, is easy to pull, and can be used in a variety of dishes. A quick Internet search for recipes reveals intriguing temptations like Garlic Mustard and Spinach Raviolis with Garlic Mustard Pesto. Use caution, as the plant contains small amounts of cyanide, as do apple seeds.

Even if you don’t develop a taste for this plant, pulling it up during annual spring cleanups and early gardening efforts is a good strategy and one to encourage among friends and neighbors.

Another prolific but edible invasive is Japanese knotweed. This plant displaces native plant communities by vigorously forming dense mats of bamboo-like stalks up to 10 feet tall. It can be used as a cooked vegetable or in jams, salad and pies, according to “Edible Wild Plants of Pennsylvania and Neighboring States,” by Richard and Mary Lee Medve.

Like rhubarb, the stems are quite tart and can be substituted in similar recipes. Harvest shoots up to one foot high before they leaf out. Use caution, as the plant may cause photosensitive dermatitis.

When considering whether to consume any wild edible, minimize risks by positively identifying the plant, collecting the correct form at the appropriate time and preparing it as specified. Even so, it is possible to find that you are allergic to a certain plant, so experiment with care.