Food

These 10 Invasive Plant Species Are Surprisingly Delicious

By Marie Viljoen - March 20, 2019

Time was, the only place you might encounter a thicket of invasive Japanese knotweed or a tangle of pokeweed was while bushwacking in the urban or rural wilds. While most weeds will be left to languish in the wilderness, there is a growing awareness that many of these unruly plants—usually a blight to farmers and home gardeners—have something in common: They can be quite good to eat. This spring, bundles of tender, young knotweed and pokeweed shoots will be appearing tentatively at greenmarkets. Along with wild cresses, aggressive onions, rampant mugwort, and habitat-altering autumn berries, they represent a steadily rising tide of edibles-formerly-known-as-weeds becoming available to cooks.

Thanks to foragers, attendant trending hashtags like #wildfoodlove, and the emerging practice of what I call conservation foraging (focusing on sustainable harvest practises and the collection of invasive species), many weeds that landowners battle on their lawns are the same ingredients appearing on restaurant menus, in CSA boxes, and at market.

As the audience for culinary weeds grows, farmers are poised to take advantage of this potential income. But little information is yet available on how weeds function as marketable crops. One farmer-forager recognizing this gap in knowledge is Russian-born Tusha Yakovleva, who lives in the Hudson River Valley. Her new guide for farmers, Edible Weeds from Farm to Market, will be available this fall, funded by the Sustainable Agriculture and Research program. Its aim is to educate and empower farmers who wish to add invasive edibles to their harvest lists. My own book out this fall, Forage, Harvest, Feast: A Wild-Inspired Cuisine (Chelsea Green), will cater to the receiving end of the wild supply chain—the curious cook and chef—by providing hundreds of recipes for preparing weeds and wild plants at home.

But for now, here is a list of 10 choice edible weeds appearing in greenmarkets, with a rundown of what to expect from them.

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Autumn Olive, Elaeagnus umbellata

Marie Viljoen

Farmer Faith Gilbert, of Letterbox Farm, includes the sour crimson fruits of autumn olive (also called autumn berries), in early autumn CSA boxes in Hudson, NY. They are as tart as red currants and can be used in similar ways. Their high lycopene content can cause jams to separate, but their color and flavor invigorate sweet and savory sauces and fruit leathers.

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Burdock, Arctium lappa

Marie Viljoen

Peeled burdock stems are crisp and versatile. “Everyone loves them as soon as they try them,” says Avery McGuire, of Thalli Foods near Ithaca, NY, who began selling the late-spring stems to chefs and farmers-market shoppers after reading Samuel Thayer’s Forager’s Harvest. She suggests dipping them into hummus, or braising them. Burdock’s cold-season taproot (better known as gobo) is a substantial, starchy vegetable that takes well to slow, moist cooking.

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Chickweed, Stellaria media

Marie Viljoen

With its appealing flavor of nutty corn silk, spring chickweed is a delicacy best appreciated raw. Its tender stems, leaves, and flowers are ideal fillers for summer rolls, and a gentle bed for seared seafood.

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Mugwort, Artemisia vulgaris

Marie Viljoen

Mugwort’s feathery leaves are packed with a sage-like fragrance that is wildly versatile in the kitchen. Author and wild foods purveyor Tama Matsuoka Wong says they are “awesome as tempura.” She supplies mugwort and other edible invasives to Fresh Direct, under the name Meadows and More. From its first shoots through to its winter stalks (which can be used as kebab skewers), this under-appreciated herb is about to experience a slow-burn renaissance.

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Pokeweed, Phytolacca americana

Marie Viljoen

Known as poke sallet in the South, this indigenous but prolific plant was originally eaten by Native Americans. It is a succulent spring vegetable when blanched in ample boiling water, but it must never be eaten raw. Pokeweed’s notoriety stems from livestock poisonings or improper preparation: Animals that graze on the mature plant or snout out its toxic rhizome can grow sick and die; unripe fruit and uncooked green parts are also toxic to humans. But once blanched, young poke shoots are delectable.

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Wintercress, Barbarea verna & B. vulgaris

Marie Viljoen

The early-season alternative to watercress, wintercress (also called creasy greens, wild cress, or upland cress) is a land dweller whose leafy heat is reminiscent of wild arugula. Later in spring, wintercress stems shoot up, bearing acid yellow flowers. These tender morsels, like baby broccolini, are a prime and ephemeral spring ingredient.