The Forager’s Dilemma

I’ve been struggling recently with the criminalization of garlic mustard. Maybe “criminalization” is too strong of a word, but maybe not. Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is an invasive species marching its way across all American ecosystems.

The Much Maligned Garlic Mustard
The Much Maligned Garlic Mustard

It’s not only edible and nutritious, it’s downright tasty and can be harvested at many different stages of its lifecycle. But is it really “that” bad? Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) are equally likely to infest the landscape – and equally difficult to remove once they’ve arrived – but dandelions are celebrated by foragers while garlic mustard is universally maligned.

Dandelion Celebration
Dandelion Celebration

Maybe the only difference is that dandelions “won” the invasion so long ago, we’ve had time to learn to appreciate their many gifts.

Take Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum) as another example. Not only invasive, but singularly destructive as well. A quick internet search will reveal just how bad knotweed infestations can be in terms of property damage. When we harvest it, we save every scrap of material that isn’t eaten, and cook it to death in a microwave and then ALSO burn it in a burn barrel to make sure not a scrap remains viable.

A Knotweed Invasion Marching Inevitably Towards a Nearby Road
A Knotweed Invasion Marching Inevitably Towards a Nearby Road

But knotweed is grown commercially to harvest the resveratrol in its roots, and my own daily resveratrol supplement is 100% knotweed. Anecdotally I’ve heard that tinctures of the roots can also help with Lyme disease. (Still doesn’t mean I want it growing anywhere on my property!)

Sometimes native plants are unwanted, viewed as noxious weeds and intentionally exterminated despite the fact that they are indigenous to the landscape. I’ve intentionally planted prickly pear (Opuntia mesacantha), milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and sunchokes (Helianthus tuberosus) because of their benefits, even though not everyone appreciates them to the extent that I do. Are they “bad”?

Milkweed (front left), prickly pear (center) and sunchokes (rear) - all intentionally planted
Milkweed (front left), prickly pear (center) and sunchokes (rear) – all intentionally planted

Who gets to decide what counts as a weed? I have amaranth seedlings (Amaranthus spp.) sprouting in my garden, technically “weeds” because I didn’t plant them there, but knowing all the food they can provide in edible leaves and seeds, should I still pull them up to make room for “real” crops?

"Weed" amaranth seedlings next to a drip irrigation line
“Weed” amaranth seedlings next to a drip irrigation line

Last year I might’ve *cough cough* let a lamb’s quarter (Chenopodium album) go to seed in one of my garden paths. Is this now a crop rather than an invasive weed?

My lamb's quarter "crop"
My lamb’s quarter “crop”

Note the prickly lettuce and pokeweed in the foreground are NOT welcome. They will be pulled and discarded, while the lamb’s quarter will be harvested – big difference!

Who are we to decide what is “good” versus “bad”? Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) may seem just as invasive and eradication-worthy as knotweed, even though it’s native so technically not “invading” at all.

A mixed ensemble of edible wild plants that I won't touch
A mixed ensemble of edible wild plants that I won’t touch

Here in the center and right, we see a handful of poke shoots at a perfect stage for harvesting (and a few, to the left, which are too large to bother), surrounded by garlic mustard, cleavers (Galium aparine), and even some lamb’s quarter. But notice that tiny splotch of red to the left of the tallest poke? That’s poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) which means I won’t touch this whole patch of edible wild plants. Are they all now automatically weeds, if they don’t have utility to me because of the poison ivy?

And then there is this ensemble. I “should” cut everything growing under the elderberry shrub (Sambucus canadensis), so nothing competes with it for nutrients and its roots have plenty of space to grow. Buuuuuuuuut…How many edible or medicinal wild plants do you see in this photo?

Another assortment of wild and medicinal plants
Another assortment of wild and medicinal plants

There’s burdock (Arctium spp.); dandelion; wild carrot, aka Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota)- young enough to actually harvest!; more cleavers; wild blackberry shoots (Rubus spp.); a speck of purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum); field garlic (Allium vineale); catnip (Nepeta cataria); pokeweed shoots… ah, and there it is. More garlic mustard.

Who am I to say which plant is “worthy” of staying, and which needs to go?

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