Weeds for Lunch: Helping the Environment Bite by Bite

By: Marcia Anderson

Imagine my surprise when I sat down to a nice lunch salad in a trendy restaurant and found garden weeds on my plate! This, I thought, was an interesting opportunity to take a bite out of the non-native species that negatively impact biodiversity.

There is an innovative movement for eating invasive species taking place. They are showing up more and more on restaurant menus. Many non-native species can be really good eating if they can be harvested and prepared properly. In New York City, New Haven, San Diego and Houston, dozens of chefs are putting invasive species on their menus.

There is growing evidence that systematic removal of invasive species can be effective in allowing native species to recover. It is not a quick fix or a silver bullet, but consumption, along with other integrated pest management strategies, could help. And it is surely a way to get people engaged in the problem that is homogenizing the world’s ecosystems. Here are some ways you can lend your palette to the cause of consuming invasive species.

Young sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus) leaves are wonderful in salads, adding substance, and a slightly bitter taste when mixed with other greens. The older leaves can also be added to soups and stews. Sow thistle leaves are said to be a good source of vitamins A and C, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, calcium, phosphorus and iron. It is edible from the top of its bright flowers to the bottom of its taproot. The ancient Greeks and Romans used it as an herb in cooking and it was a popular food for their livestock. Sow thistle is found throughout North America.

Bonnie Million, National Park Service, bugwood.org

Lambsquarters (Photo: Bonnie Million, National Park Service, bugwood.org)

Lambsquarters (Chenopodium album) is one of the most widely distributed plants in the world, tolerant of poor soils, high altitudes, and minimal rainfall and available even in urban areas. It is a versatile weed, with dozens of related and useful species that offer incredible amounts of nourishment to those who harvest it. Lambsquarters are part of the goosefoot family that also includes spinach, red beets, sugar beets and Swiss chard. Follow a New York City recipe story.

Fresh, young dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) greens are a tasty addition to your salad when topped with your favorite dressing. Harvest the greens before the plant flowers, or the leaves will be bitter. Try sautéing dandelions with olive oil, lemon and garlic for a spinach-like vegetable. Herbalists have treated many ailments with the dandelion for centuries.  According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, dandelions are thought to have many nutritional and health benefits.

Dandelions are also commonly used to make wine. In the Middle Ages, my ancestors made dandelions a key part of their morning ritual, in the same way that most Americans start their day with a strong cup of coffee. Dandelion tea is often used as a coffee substitute, made from the root of the dandelion plant.

Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, bugwood.org

Autumn olive (Photo: Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, bugwood.org)

Did you know that in NYC autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) are abundant and the fruits are exquisite to eat? It is one of the best wild fruits to be found in northern cities, but is also one of the least known. Since 1830, autumn olive have been widely planted on strip mines and highway medians to contain erosion. They are a favorite food for many birds.  But birds, stuffed full of berries, have dropped their seeds as they fly, planting parks and gardens with countless autumn olive shrubs.

For two or three months a year across New York, autumn olives are heavy with scarlet fruit that taste something like a cross between a currant and a pie cherry. Under the silver-green canopy of the leaves, the red autumn olives are clearly identified by their silver-stippled skins. The cool fall air will ripen any bitter tasting fruit. They are delicious eaten out of hand, on salads, or gathered to be simmered into jams or jellies. They can also be dried, like currants or raisins. The juice can also be cooked down and spooned onto seared pork chops. Look for them near the Hudson, in Central Park, on the shores of Jamaica Bay, and on Floyd Bennett Field. Do not confuse autumn olives with Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia), whose fruit is a mealy green-yellow drupe and is mealy tasting, at best.

Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is found in the moist shaded soil of forests, flood plains, roadsides, edges of woods and forest openings throughout most of North America. Garlic mustard pesto is awesome! Look for recipes in Kalamazoo Nature Center’s cookbook, From Pest to Pesto.

Damage from invasive species extends beyond the environment. A Cornell University study estimates that invasive species cause more than $120 billion in economic harm annually in the U.S. alone. No matter where you are located, there are plenty of non-native, invasive species wreaking havoc in local ecosystems. To help bring attention to the problem of invasive species, the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute published Eat the Invaders in 2012 and host a related Facebook forum. So, check out these new menu items and help the environment at the same time.

About the Author: Marcia is with EPA’s Center of Expertise for School IPM in Dallas, Texas. She holds a PhD in Environmental Management from Montclair State University along with degrees in Biology, Environmental Design, Landscape Architecture, and Instruction and Curriculum. Marcia was formerly with the EPA Region 2 Pesticides Program and has been a professor of Earth and Environmental Studies, Geology, and Oceanography at several universities.

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