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Eating the Invaders

Ruth's five acres of yard and pasture had been untended three years when she took over in 2000. Since then, she's been struggling to reclaim it organically.

Trying to identify what had grown up, I found a lot of non-native invaders. Asian bittersweet (the florist's pretty fall decoration); amur honeysuckle; perennial field bindweed (smaller flowers than ornamental morning glory); jimson weed, hallucinogenic and deadly.

Ruth already knew the common plantain (even gave me the news I could eat it), multiflora rose (making tree canopies "like a rainforest," she says); and an atypically yellow-flowered giant hogweed (in pulling some up, she learned the hard way of its contact poisons).

What she thought was Russian olive, is autumn olive (from China) — they're related large shrubs with silvery leaves, but the Russian has yellow-gray-green fruit, and the less-invasive autumn's fruit gets red — with a cranberry-plum taste, and more beneficial lycopene than any other plant.

Tomatillo — papery lantern-like husks encasing the fruit so prized for salsa verde (all the rest of the plant is toxic) — sprawled all over, though it's not considered invasive this far north.

Three I had to look up. Redroot pigweed (an amaranth) — with its tight clumps of bunched green bristles that surprised me by turning out to be flowers — I learned is tasty and nutritious, but wreaks havoc in field crops. Devil's beggarticks (a.k.a. tickseed sunflower, bur marigold, pitchfork weed, or sticktights) also had no petals on its little flowers.

Smooth bedstraw looked enough like its relative sweet woodruff, that I easily found it among the Galium genus. The other two, I was simply lucky to find in my book Weeds of the Northeast, edited by Richard H. Uva, Joseph C. Neal, and Joseph M. DiTomaso. The book uses some drawn illustration, which usually demonstrates plant anatomy better — and also many outstanding detailed photographs.

Ruth's horses eat hogweed when it's young, and the devil's beggarticks before or just when they begin flowering; they love redroot pigweed. All her animals eat field bindweed (reports are mixed on toxicity of its alkaloids for livestock). The goats will eat smooth bedstraw if they're really hungry, but the chickens and turkeys like it. The best news, however, is that goats like bittersweet enough to browse it down before it fruits.

Cooking with invasive plants is fun, but humans can hardly make a dent in the supply. However Ruth's animals — which she moves around — consume a lot more.

© Copyright 2005 Catherine Holmes Clark

Published in the six Nashoba Publications papers on Friday, 7 October 2005

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For more information about items mentioned in the published article
  • Weeds of the Northeast, edited by Richard H. Uva, Joseph C. Neal, and Joseph M. DiTomaso. (If you buy from this page, Green Hands gets a small commission.)
  • Celastrus orbiculatus (Asian or Asiatic bittersweet, oriental bittersweet)
  • Lonicera maackii (Amur honeysuckle)
  • Convolvulus arvensis (field bindweed, wild morning glory)

More information for Ruth about other plants I found at her place:

  • Phytolacca americana (pokeweed) - beautiful, poisonous, invasive, native to North America. Although this plant is a traditional folk food in the South, to make it safe to eat you have to follow strictly some elaborate cooking procedures!
  • Helianthus tuberosus or tomentosus (Jerusalem artichoke) - native to North America, very tasty; Native Americans cooked with it a lot, and spread it all over. It spreads aggressively by itself, but is not considered invasive. The starch in it is not used by our bodies, so although it satisfies like a carbohydrate, it doesn't give many calories.
  • Philadelphus coronarius (mock-orange). This shrub, native to southern Europe and the Caucasus, is not considered invasive. Sweet-smelling flowers. Click on the tiny photos on this page, to get larger ones.
  • Polygonatum odoratum (Solomon's seal) - this pretty plant is native to Europe and the Caucasus, plus from Siberia to Japan. Not invasive. It has many edible parts but is easy to confuse with false Solomon's seal, which is quite toxic.
  • Sedum telephium a.k.a Hylotelephium telephium (Madonna's herb, orpine, telephio, live-forever, Witch's moneybags). This Eurasian sure looks like the sedum that grows all over Ruth's place and mine — but I've never seen it flower. At Ruth's it was in the woods, not flowering. Sedums with pink flowers are recommended as edible (if bland); yellow-flowered ones, with a high concentration of a toxic phytochemical, will cause gastric distress.