They wouldn’t be out of place on a “most wanted” list, these alien invaders that displace our native species and wreak havoc upon ecosystems. The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources reports that invasive species are second only to habitat loss as a threat to the province’s biodiversity. But there’s a growing contingent of foodies and ecologists who suggest that these invasives could serve as good side dishes. Less detested, they say, than digested. Jessica Robertson, for one, offers a workshop on urban foraging through Wild Craft Permaculture, her sustainable landscaping business in London, and frequently uses invasive species in her recipes. Jackson Landers, the author of the recently released book Eating Aliens (Storey Publishing), says that garlic mustard and kudzu, for example, “are both delicious.” And “Wildman” Steve Brill, an urban forager who leads regular foraging tours in the Big Apple, and even has an app that includes info on eating invasives, insists that “eating them and having more contact with nature makes us more aware of our need to protect it.” We agree: If you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em!
Phragmites (Phragmites australis)
Phragmites, a relative newcomer to the invasives list, is swallowing up beaches and wetlands along the Great Lakes, where it has been compared to purple loosestrife in its spread and impact. How to eat it: Boiled and tossed with butter. Pick the shoots right where they meet the underground stems.
Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica)
With a place on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s “100 of the World’s Worst Invasive Species” list, Japanese knotweed is almost universally loathed. Except by Steve Brill, who
says it “tastes like rhubarb…only better.” How to eat it: Steamed, with garlic, sesame seeds, and cayenne; also, in soups and sauces, or in baking. According to Brill, you can eat the shoots when they’re 15-20 cm tall. Anything taller and you’ll first have to remove the tough outer layer.
Kudzu (Pueraria montana)
Known as “the vine that ate the South,” kudzu was ostensibly brought to America in 1876 for a Centennial celebration. A prolific grower (up to 30 cm per day), it recently jumped the border into Ontario along Lake Erie near Leamington. Like American culture, it threatens to take over completely. How to eat: it As young shoots in a salad, or use larger leaves to wrap savoury meatand- rice fillings. The secret, says Jackson Landers, is to parboil the leaves. “Kudzu has these fuzzy hairs on it that can make the texture pretty unpleasant. Parboiling turns it into a very versatile vegetable.”
Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata)
Originally brought here by European settlers for their kitchen gardens, garlic mustard has spread throughout North America. How to eat it: Puréed into a pesto, or in salads. Jessica Robertson recommends harvesting the leaves before the plant flowers and turns bitter.
Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata)
Found throughout Southern Ontario, the autumn olive boasts fragrant flowers and lovely silvery leaves. The berries are “nutritious and delicious,” says Robertson. How to eat it: In smoothies and yogurt, or in jams and jellies.