Embracing Invasive Species through Food, Medicine and Bio-fuel

Invasive species of plants are a complicated issue in our present world, spawning much controversy. These plants are introduced usually by humans intentionally or unintentionally, and have very aggressive habits of growing that can overrun native species and habitats.

The introduction of them have been responded to by herbicide companies in efforts to eradicate them. Although these are the measures that are being taken on a large scale, there are many other layers beneath the surface of this story.

The reality is that these herbicide applications on invasive species are in turn poisoning our ground water, polluting soils, and inadvertently harming animals, insects and other plants. This fear based need to control and destroy these species fails to look at the entire ecological system as a whole and understand the bigger picture. This is much like “[the] failure of design [of] today’s health care system”(Falk, 2013) that seeks to eradicate disease rather than looking at the root cause of it.

Many budding ecologists have their first jobs in ecological restoration, AKA spraying herbicides on invasive species.

Often times, when we look past this concept of what we think of as plants trying to invade a given area, we learn that they have many different abilities and talents. Often these species are incredibly useful in the fact that they can provide medicine, food for people and animals, or be used as biomass.

Let’s be clear; there is no need to encourage these plants as they do often harm native flora and fauna. However, if they’re already in a given area, isn’t it better to forage them and use them for food, fuel, or medicine, than to douse them in herbicide? The way that we’re dealing with the reality of them now is unfathomably short sighted.

When we really look clearly, what is the only species on the planet that has a concept of what invasion means?

Humans certainly do!

Image result for corn fields

We destroy entire forest ecosystems and plant Corn. You will see acres upon acres of it that are grown in ways that are completely oblivious to ecosystem health. These crops swallow up native species unlike anything else.

Invasive species, for instance Japanese Knotweed, do not often occur in areas that are healthy ecosystems. They almost act as aggressive band-aids to land that has been degraded or disturbed through industrialization and development. You will never see this plant in a healthy forest. This plant is inductive of areas that need restoration most. Knotweed also has many uses that can be so helpful to people, wildlife, and the landscape.

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Japanese Knotweed in Bloom

This incredibly aggressive plant emerged at the same time that Lymes disease did in Ontario. It just so happens to have medicinal qualities that help people who have Lymes disease. It also has edible shoots in the spring time that taste like rhubarb. I’ve made Strawberry Knotweed Pie that’s delicious!

Autumn Olive; one of humans most dreaded trees in the landscape, has incredible edible berries that come back every single year. It is one of the most common trees to be sprayed with herbicide, while failing to recognize it’s abundant food source. The more we eat the less of them get planted. This tree was first planted by humans in mining sites because they were one of the only trees that would grow there.

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A very invasive tree called Autumn Olive with extremely prolific edible berries.

Milkweed was once considered a noxious weed by OMAFRA. We now know that Milkweed is of course the home for the Monarch Butterfly and is an absolutely essential part of their life cycle. It is so astonishing to think that people sought to remove it out of pure ignorance, and that if it wasn’t incredibly resilient we would have largely eradicated it, and Monarchs.

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Monarch caterpillar crawling amidst the Milkweed blossoms; once considered a noxious weed by OMAFRA

Garlic Mustard is a completely edible delicious plant that is also incredibly invasive. It is one of the invasives that really harms the environment around it by hindering fungal relationships with other plants, robbing them of nutrients. In forest with many native plants I have seen it totally devastate their populations. Rather than uprooting it, chop down to the base before it flowers. And eat them up like no tomorrow!

Black Locust, now being called an invasive species, has incredible edible flowers that pollinators refuge in, has incredibly rot resistant wood, and has an amazing BTU rate, whilst also growing productively.

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The list has only begun…

Often, there are native species that behave as “invasive” species do. For instance, Goldenrod who is actually native to North America. This species dominates any given area it finds itself in, and is remarkable in its ability to grow and spread. Alongside of these qualities, there are also many beautiful and important traits that this plant possesses.

Goldenrod is a wonderful pollinator for native bees and other insects, and it is a powerful medicine that is widely accessible. If we looked at this species only through the lens of how they take over a given landscape, we would consider them invasives, too.

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Goldenrod in late summer.

What if we fed people in need with the countless “invasive” plants that are also edible and delicious. There are so many that are. Hunger is one of the most pressing issues of our time.

Pascal Baudar on Instagram: “Invasivore dish - Nettles pesto (Urtica urens), cheatgrass grains (Bromus tectorum) and roasted wild oats (Avena fatua). Penne pasta, touch…”
A wild foods chef named Pascal Baudar who has shone a light on using invasive foods in beautiful culinary dishes.

What if we used these plants to create mulch and other bio fuel to feed the landscape and create more soil rich in organic matter in a world that so desperately needs it.

What if we looked deeper into their ecological role: why are they appearing here? What kind of shape is the landscape in where they have emerged? Are there species around it that are actually benefiting from it? What species are being detrimented?

Just for a moment, think of invasive species as pieces of a musical instrument. If we are to simply destroy them, like removing different keys from a piano, or strings from a guitar, it certainly doesn’t improve our chances of making beautiful music. They are part of the grand whole that is Nature.

Again, I’m going to reiterate this point because I’m sure I have struck nerves of radical native plant enthusiasts: I’m in no way suggesting that we allow invasive species to wreak havoc on the landscape.

Accessible and free food, medicine, and bio fuel are all great uses that do not involve herbicide companies profiting from a devastating landscape.

These three things, that can all derive from invasive species, could change the world. Not only would these solutions be at our finger tips, but the native ecosystems wouldn’t have so much pressure on them to grow. Ecological preservation can be achieved whilst solving so many other issues. There is no better way to solve a problem than by solving many other problems at the same time. Entire business plans can be born out of this premise.

There is no other time like the present moment to avoid grocery stores…The landscape around you is very likely to be teeming with delicious and nutritious invasive species that are ready to taste. It’s a good thing that spring is just around the corner.

Let’s see plants for who they really are. Let’s really question the motive of herbicide companies on the war on invasive species and work to practice solutions that don’t harm ecology. We have tried to control and dominate Nature for far too long. It is time we take reverence in truly trying to understand how to balance this issue for the reciprocity of all things. Let this sink in…herbicides have never, ever succeeded in eradicating invasive species. May we all seek deeper meaning and prosperity from the extremely challenging reality of invasive species.

For further reading and inspiration on how to work with invasive species in positive ways:

  1. Pascal Baudar author of the New Wildcrafted Cuisine, and The Wildcrafted Brewer, and Wildcrafted Fermentation
  2. Tao Orion author of Beyond the War on Invasive Species
  3. Sam Thayer author of The Foragers Harvest and Natures Garden. Many native and invasive foods described in comprehensive detail.
Image result for Pascal Baudars invasive menu
Pascal Baudar, a great inspiration with culinary solutions to the war on invasive species.

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