Thursday, April 25, 2013

Invasives: If you can’t beat them…eat them!

We are watching spring begin to green by day...almost minute by minute on some warm days. A walk in many woodlands can reveal a sad fact, that many of the first plants to green up in the spring are the non-native invasives. Drive along the roadways and peer into the woods: a haze of low lime green often signifies a serious infestation by Japanese Barberry. 
Garlic Mustard leaf. Photo by Beth Sullivan.
 The medians of our highways are filling with green already, and much of that is Multiflora Rose and Autumn Olive. Our hedgerows are thickening up with Honeysuckle and Winged Euonymous. All are non-native and invasive. That is part of their secret to success: green up quick, grow fast and out compete everything else. It is not to say that these plants have absolutely no value to wildlife; they do. Many of the dense thickets of these shrubs are perfect homes for many of the animals and birds we strive to protect like the New England Cotton tail. The berries of Multiflora Rose are eaten by many birds, and often through the winter a territorial mockingbird will take up residence guarding his stash of rose hips on a big bush. But that is how invasive plants get spread. Years ago, Porcelain berry was in every nursery and purchased for the beautiful berries it bears. Birds discovered the berries, gobbled them up and spread them far and wide. That vine has become Public Enemy # 1 on several Avalonia preserves, including the Knox Preserve. So we wage battle with whatever means, chemical or mechanical, that we need to use.
We have another option with one nasty invasive: we eat it!

Garlic Mustard is a biennial, herbaceous plant. At this time of year the seedlings are carpeting roadsides and moist woodland floors. The second year plants are already nearly 10 inches tall, fully leafed out and flower buds are beginning to form. They are the greenest, most visible plant in many local woods right now. They create a chemical in their root system that inhibits the growth of other plants around them. In this way they secure plenty of space for themselves and their offspring, to the detriment of all the other native plants in the ecosystem they share. They will even inhibit tree seeds, like acorns, from sprouting where there is a significant presence. They have a terrible impact.
Clearing invasives. Photo by Beth Sullivan.
This past weekend on a food segment on a local NBC station, a chef described a wonderful new way to use fresh local greens and the greens he used were Garlic Mustard. They have a definite garlic flavor, not at all unpleasant when eaten raw. (I have tried them.) He sautéed them in olive oil, wilted them like spinach, tossed them with onions and sea salt and then added feta cheese. They looked pretty good. The news anchor liked it, too. He suggested adding them to salads, making a pesto, even using them as a soup base.
Garlic Mustard plant. Photo by Beth Sullivan.

So get out and do yourself and the environment a favor. Eat your greens! Don’t use plants that grow along the road sides. They collect pollutants. Make sure you have identified the plant properly. Bruising a leaf does release a nice mild garlic odor. Don’t just harvest though. Rip out the whole plant!! Then harvest the tender green leaves to savor. It is actually best to bag and dispose of the plants if you can.
Maybe we can find a dessert made of Porcelain berries!
Written by Beth Sullivan.

Learn more about Garlic Mustard and Multiflora Rose at the Nation Invasive Species Information Center.
Learn more about Porcelain Berry at the National Park Service web site.

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