Wild Edibles with a Spin: Eat Your Invasives

So many people ask me what the difference is between Native Species, Naturalized Species, and Invasive Species.  Here are my loose definitions from my nutshell.

Native Species have originated from an area, like Muksoka and Haliburton, and belong in that particular Ecotype where they are typically found.  They have always grown there, participating with their wild communities, providing food and habitat without competing with their neighbours.

Naturalized Species managed to take root here when they were either: A. Planted by people who brought them over because they liked to use them at home or, B. Hitched a ride by way of seed or root bit as humans traversed an area.  i.e. Poison Ivy made its way across Ontario often by way of livestock manure.  But Naturalized Species have kind of found their own harmless niche, other than sometimes being a nuisance in the vegetable garden.

Invasive Species take hold and choke out all other floral forms of life and provide little or no food or habitat for local wildlife.  Phragmites, for example can be seen alongside our roadways, choking out the native Cattail marshes and wetlands.  It is a relentless and ruthless plant.

So really, this blog isn’t about native edibles, though invasives do get pretty wildwhich is why they have become an issue.

Since wildcrafting and foraging have become quite popular over the past few years, being advertised in LCBO’s Food and Drink magazine, and being used to advertise the restaurants of large resorts in Cottage Country, we’ve become a little concerned here at Lake of Bays. Concerned that this activity could start to do great harm to our forests on a new level.  Wild edibles colonies in this area, particularly the leeks, ferns, and mushrooms, have taken generations, even centuries, to be what they are today.  There is nowhere where humans can’t reach anymore.

BUT the interest is there, so how can we take advantage of it as a sustainable learning tool?

My Elders tell me tales of caution.  Tales where they have discovered that after teaching perfectly honourable students their knowledge about Wild Edible Survival, the pinpointed wild edible colonies disappeared, even though the Wild Harvest Code was repeated throughout the teachings, and the teachings took place in protected places.

All it took was a positive tale of a student’s experience, solely word of mouth of what they’d learned, over time…  These innocent discussions eventually resulted in the disappearance of those colonies, particularly the mushrooms, which my Elders used to visit to teach.   It is only human nature.  Although there are sustainable harvesters out there, there are others who will not learn proper practise and will keep foraging until all of the Fiddleheads, mushrooms, and Wild Leeks are gone; perhaps for financial reasons, and who can blame them?

I started to wonder, after attending a Lake of Bays Association Invasive Species Tracking Committee meeting, if we, as foragers leading large public groups, can instead help mitigate the harm caused by invasives, AND divert some of the now popular public foraging out of the forest to solve the invasive species issue in Lake of Bays, and perhaps in other communities, altogether!

Case in point:  Japanese Knotweed and Garlic Mustard.

Now, there are many invasive species that are not useful to humans in a food sense, BUT off of the top of my head, Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica) and Garlic Mustard (Allaria petiolata) are totally useful to humans as an edible.  Good ones at that!

So I’m going to show you some key ID features for each species and some basic preparation methods for each as well.  I’ll start with recipes, as neither of these are harvestable now, this being August, BUT I’ll post preparation method with photos in the spring when they are again useful.

The late-season photos will help you identify your local colonies NOW, in late summer, as they are quite evident (even though they may not be edible now).  An important thing to remember, especially when harvesting Garlic Mustard, is that you don’t trample down the woodland species intermixed with it.

R.K. Japanese Knotweed roadside form IMG_2526 wtm.jpg

As you can see above, Japanese Knotweed is quite obvious in its height, leaf patterning and density.  It grows in VERY DENSE thickets.  You can’t even walk through because the previous years’ stalks trip you.  The plant dies back every year, leaving the wilted stalks on the ground and put up new shoots, like asparagus every year, which is why people brought it over from their origins in the first place.

Japanese knotweed flowers and petioles IMG_2514 wtm.jpg

The flowers of Japanese Knotweed look like other flowers in the Polygonaceae, or Buckwheat family.

R.K. Japanese knotweed stalks and leaves IMG_2522 wtm.jpg

Believe it or not, these woody stalks are edible when fresh and new in the spring, like asparagus!  Note the red petioles on the heart shaped leaf.

R.K. Japanese knotweed underside shot IMG_2517 wtm.jpg

Note the patterning on the stalks.  They grow so fast the patterns stretch with the growth. You can see why this plant is also called ‘Shrubby Bamboo’.

PREPARATION: The young spring shoots of Japanese Knotweed should be harvested before they are 4″ tall, like a stalk of asparagus.  You would do well to boil them in a change of water as described in the Botanigal ‘Rapini Demystified‘ blog post.

Garlic Mustard whole plant_RXB2266 wtm.jpg

Garlic Mustard, being a Brassica, or mustard, is a hardy traveller.  Mustards explosively dehisce their seeds, throwing them far from the mother plant.  A good ID feature for this plant is that it smells like an Allium, or garlic more specifically, when crushed.

Garlic Mustard cropped for detail_RXB2266 wtm.jpg

Soft and not serrated.  Gentle scallops along the leaf blade is another ID feature.  Cabbage White butterflies are one species that thrive off of the flowers of this particular invasive.

Garlic Mustard Blooms_RXB2263 wtm.jpgNote the flowers of the Garlic Mustard, typical of the Brassicaceae, off of which the Cabbage Whites thrive.

PREPARATION: Garlic Mustard is delicious without changes of water when harvested young.  Though, you can cook it like Rapini (see the Botanigal blog ‘Rapini Demystified’ for further instruction), without the garlic of course…

Bear with me, I’ll keep adding to this post as I get the photos and further information.

By the way, Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), an invasive of wet meadows and fens, is a great source of Wild Dye, which will be the topic of my next post.

May the forest be with you.

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