Invasive Thoughts

Isn’t “invasive” just another word for “abundance”?

Garlic Mustard. Evil invasive invader or abundant producer?
Garlic Mustard. Evil invasive weed or abundant producer?

One of my favorite weeds is garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata). Yes, that invasive biennial that’s the bane of naturalists and ecologists everywhere. Ever since I discovered it a few years ago, it has held a special place in my heart. Most of its detractors (“haters gonna hate”) don’t know a dirty little secret – garlic mustard is edible. It’s in the New World because settlers brought it over from Europe as a culinary herb. Garlic mustard is a mustard green that tastes like garlic and has no natural predators here in Ohio (including our veracious deer and groundhogs). It grows where other plants don’t (shady, wild, and disturbed areas) and makes a really delicious pesto. My garlic mustard adoration stems (pun intended) from its resilience. It’s the kind of resilience and vigor I wish all my plants had.

During a library gardening presentation, I was describing my garlic mustard love. One woman stopped me mid-sentence as she finally put two and two together and realized that I was talking about Garlic Mustard (cue the evil music). She thought I was actually cultivating it, and was abhorred at the idea. For the record, I’m not purposely growing it. I try to harvest as much as I can carry every spring so it doesn’t take over the world. Truth be told, because of its “invasiveness”,  I will never have to cultivate it. Garlic Mustard can really take care of itself.

“Indeed, Homo sapiens is perhaps the weediest of all species, and the more he dominates the landscape, the more he seems to thrive. If we confine the concept of weeds to species adapted to human disturbance, then man is by definition the first and primary weed under whose influence all other weeds have evolved.”
Crops & Man, Second Edition, Jack R. Harlan,  p. 87

I do find it interesting that people love to villainize flora and fauna with the “invasive” tag. As I was going through my Permaculture Design Course, my instructor Peter Bane wouldn’t even utter the word. He called it the “I word”. This label is put on plants and animals which are seen as invaders from another land. They take over niches that “native” plants have and squeeze them out. Of course, from an environmental point of view, I get the whole “keep our natives native” concept but the problem I see in this discussion is the elephant in the room – us.  

Humans are more invasive than any other creature except maybe cockroaches (you know, the whole surviving nuclear war thing). Yes, settlers did displace the native people that were here in the Americas 400 years ago (thanks to the animal-based diseases Europeans carried with them), but those “natives” have only been on the continent maybe 15,000 years maximum. Considering the Earth is 4 billion plus years old, and humans have only been around a 200,000 years in our present form, native is extremely relative. All I can say is that maybe all our efforts to eradicating invasive species could be put to better use, like creating sustainable ecosystems and using “invasive” resources to feed and warm us when the oil runs out.

Permaculture stresses utilizing on-premise resources.  My plea to you is research the wild plants on your sites. Try to learn as much about them as you can before dismissing them. “How may ways can this plant be useful?” is a question every permaculturalist should be asking (otherwise known as “function stacking”). Many of your “weeds” came to your location as food and/or medicine. Here’s a list (in order of deliciousness) I came up with here at Snarky Acres (my .91 acre Kent Ohio urban farm) by asking this very question.

Fact that only interest me:
Most descriptions I find for unknown edible plants state that they taste and cook like spinach, like the plant version of “it tastes like chicken.”

 Lamb’s Quarters (Chenopodium album)

wpid-wp-1417913782701.jpeg

Lamb’s quarters are in the same family as quinoa and is closely related to spinach and beets.  I found this in my backyard last year, saved some seeds. and tossed them throughout my garden. The plants I discovered almost didn’t make it as the friendly neighborhood groundhog seemed to prefer it over other plants in the backyard (which tell’s me it’s delicious). This last season I ended up with about a dozen plants, one was 10 to 12 feet tall, during our mild drought (resistant!). I don’t think I’ll ever need to worry about having enough lamb’s quarters again.

Best way to eat Lamb’s Quarters:  same as spinach

Violet (Viola sororia)

violet

Violets (a perennial) not only show up in my garden, they are also spread throughout my yard.  I didn’t know until last year they are edible but have been eating them ever since. The leaves are pleasant and remind me of spinach.  Like many leafy greens, the earlier in the season the better.

Best way to eat violets:  leaves and flowers in salads

Plantain (Plantago major)

wpid-img_20150509_065214.jpg

Also known as white man’s foot, plantain is a yard and garden staple. It loves compacted soil, so you’ll notice it growing near where there is a lot of foot traffic. The leaves are full of nutrients with a spinach like taste. Plantain can be used medicinally for bug bites and scrapes.

Best way to eat plantain:  same as spinach

Dandelion (Taraxacum)

wpid-img_20150430_121045.jpg

We all know the good old dandelion. I laugh (just in my head) when people talk about eradicating them from their yards. Not only can it be eaten, but it helps in other ways.  The yellow flowers give bees pollen early in the season when they need it the most.  Its long tap root brings up minerals and nutrients that are then utilized by your garden plants.  Just hoe the plant down and use the leaves as mulch around your veggies.  Don’t worry – the tap root stores plenty of energy and will help the plant grow back in no time.

Best way to eat dandelions:  young leaves in salads, flowers in fritters, and roots in beer or wine

Purple Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum)

purpledeadnettle

In the mint family. purple dead nettle is a bee favorite.  It comes up early and often on bare ground in gardens.  As a salad addition, the taste isn’t the greatest but a few flowers at a time doesn’t hurt too bad.

Best way to eat purple dead nettle:  just a few flowers in salads

Ground Ivy/Creeping Charlie) (Glechoma hederacea)

wpid-img_20150506_072023.jpg

Ground Ivy or Creeping Charlie is a ground cover in the mint family. It’s not my favorite food but the bees seem to love it. Ground Ivy’s little purple flowers give plenty of nectar to small native insects. It’s strong mint-like flavor makes ground ivy a good companion plant and natural mulch.

Best way to eat Creeping Charlie:  it’s too strong for my taste, but I’ve read it makes a good tea. 

Permaculture creates abundance through nature” – Don Abbott

Seven useful weeds listed (including garlic mustard) and many not mentioned, including quickweed, hairy bittercress, purslane, multiflora rose, , and poison ivy (just kidding), raspberries, pigweed, and pokeweed. Pretty impressive.

Another place I hear the “I-word” is with common herbaceous perennials. Everybody knows that the mint family (including the Creeping Charlie mentioned above) can run amok if left unchecked. I even relocated my chocolate mint from my main garden to a more secure and bordered shady plot next to my house. I wasn’t as careful with my oregano and lemon balm though, and both have taken over a few areas of my production garden. What’s not always discussed with the mint family is their wonderful purple flowers. The oregano especially ends up looking like a pollinator airport once the flowers open up for business. Bees (both native and the non-native honey bee) and predatory insects swarm all over to the point I have to avoid the area completely so not to get stung.

“The common definition of a weed – that is a plant in the wrong place – conceals two important implications. Firstly, the word “wrong” implies a human opinion, since right and wrong are human concepts not inherent in nature. Secondly, the word “place” implies some characteristic dependence on environment, or in other words an ecological relationship, and clearly that relationship has to do with man’s own botanical activities in farming.” – A.H. Bunting (1960)

The invasiveness of weeds is a human judgement. We as humans put values on things we often don’t understand. Both honey bees and earthworms are not native to my eastern United States home, but everyone accepts them as a positive thing. Some day I’m going to ask those who describe living things as invasive to explain to me why these two examples (plus us humans) don’t count. Should make for an interesting conversation.

One thought on “Invasive Thoughts”

  1. It’s true that the value judgment we make as far as native/invasive can be arbitrary. I do like your argument that edible plants can be useful even if they are invasive.

    For an average person tending a yard, I’d suspect the appearance of the property is more important than whether plants are native or invasive. Weeds are designated as such because they look “weedy,” however an individual might define that. To this extent, the advantage of native plants would be that they will survive typical weather in the area without looking “weedy.”

    My personal interest is in the tiniest wildlife — bees, flies and butterflies. I try to capture photos for my collection and leave the insects themselves in the environment. As changing conditions have altered survival rates for honey bees (highly useful but non-native) I try to provide habitat for natives who can do many of the same jobs (although without honey). My family must thing I’m crazy, but I got really excited when bald hornets started showing up in my yard.

Leave a Reply