And yet most invasives are here to stay; it’s almost impossible to eradicate them.
“Because they’re not from around here, they don’t have the typical predators and diseases that keep them in check in their native land,” said Dave Gumbart, director of land management for the Connecticut office of The Nature Conservancy. “Once they’re established, they’re very capable of spreading and becoming aggressive.”
At the Conservancy’s properties, Gumbart and his staff deploy a variety of tactics to fight the worst invaders. They manually cut them back, dig them out, and apply targeted herbicides, but it seems to be a never-ending battle.
One step they haven’t tried, however, is eating them, and yet many chefs are taking that unusual step.
Bun Lai, the chef and owner of Miya’s Sushi in New Haven, has been doing just that for nearly 20 years, ever since he was flipping rocks along the shoreline in Branford with a friend and started to see
|Fried Asian shore crabs prepared by Bun Lai (Eric Heimbold)|
“I was just starting to promote sustainable seafood, and it dawned on me that maybe we should start thinking about invasive species as an alternate food source,” he said. “Slowly we started getting into it.”
Today, Lai is among the national leaders of this growing movement. His restaurant’s menu features an extensive variety of invasive species, from pickled burdock root and garlic mustard falafel to Asian shore crabs caught in Long Island Sound. He even serves a saké drink made with the berries of the invasive autumn olive shrub. And although he will be closing his restaurant at the end of the year, Lai will continue to serve invasive species at Miya’s pop-up restaurants around the region, and he plans to market other invasive species-based food products.
“Many of these plants are exponentially more nutritious than anything you can grow on an organic farm,” Lai said, “because they’re wild plants. Over 16,000 years we’ve cultivated for flavor, size, beauty and resilience but not for nutrition.”
That’s not to say that they don’t taste good, especially when cooked by an expert like Lai. He said that invasive Japanese knotweed, a large abundant perennial that causes millions of dollars in damage to native environments around the country each year, is every bit as tasty as rhubarb. He serves it in multiple ways, including pickled and as a tea.
He noted that invasive dandelion flowers also make an excellent tea and an even better liqueur that tastes like butterscotch candy. And mugwort, an Asian member of the daisy family, tastes like a powerful sage that he purees into rice.
“Invasive garlic mustard tastes exactly the way it’s named – like garlic and mustard,” Lai said. “It’s pungent, and the leaves are very hardy. We put it in salads, sauté them, or put them in a soup with a bunch of other foraged weeds. I really think you can’t eat anything healthier.”
James Wayman agrees. The executive chef at The Oyster Club in Mystic uses the root of garlic mustard as a horseradish substitute. “But my favorite part is that they have these lovely florets, almost like a broccoli or flowering kale, that I turn into pesto,” he said.
Wayman became interested in eating invasive species while foraging for mushrooms and other edible wild plants. He said he doesn’t necessarily seek out plants because they are invasive. Instead, he selects invasive plants largely because they are abundantly available and delicious. He especially likes cooking with Japanese knotweed, which he pickles, uses as a vegetable or makes into a syrup that he serves over ice cream. He also makes autumn olive berries into a caramel.
Both chefs get their invasive ingredients simply by walking around their own properties, at partner farms, and while enjoying nature. “We have everything I need right nearby,” Lai said. “I just step outside my door and pick it.”
Customer reaction to seeing invasive species on the menu can vary, but once people taste them, they become believers. “We’ve done some foraged dinners and had a great response,” Wayman said. “My customers really become interested in it because they’re flavors that are different from what they’re used to.”
Unfortunately, even if the consumption of invasive species became trendy, it’s not likely that it would have much of an impact on the abundance of invasives on the landscape. But that doesn’t make the effort any less worthwhile.
“We’re not going to eat our way out of the invasive species problem,” Lai concluded. “We’ll never be able to turn the ecosystem around to what it was before. But the reality is that invasive species aren’t all bad, and eating them is part of the solution to the bigger problem of trying to make our food system sustainable.”
This article first appeared in the November 2020 issue of Connecticut Magazine.