Monday, April 18, 2011

Tangy, Fibrous and Slightly Sweet

The leaves on this Japanese Knotweed are just beginning to unfurl.
If you've ever gardened on the margins of a boggy area, major roadway or forest, chances are you've come across this infamous weed. It grows in large, dense stands of hollow stalks which somewhat resemble bamboo, and can reach up to 10 feet in height.

The first time I saw it, I'll admit, I was somewhat taken with what seemed to be a wonderfully elegant perennial. It's leaves were large green hearts, it's blossoms were held in pendant, creamy sprays at the tip of each stalk, and the stalks curved ever so slightly with the weight of the blossoms. In the forest garden where they stood, next to black bamboo and framing the ocean just so,  it seemed as though they had been planted with an expert eye. I marveled at how I had never noticed them there, and how it was almost as if they had appeared out of nowhere. It wasn't long before I started noticing the same creamy sprays of flowers in a lot of other places, even on roadsides. I thought it must be a really popular plant, and was surprised that I hadn't already known about it. The nurseries I frequented didn't sell it, though I thought they should. How wrong I was.

It came upon me how wrong I was while I was listening to CBC radio one day as I weeded the garden (a staple for many Canadians who work with their hands, I think). I was listening very closely as the votes were coming in for Canada's most invasive weeds. Listener after listener called in to tell stories about weeds growing through pavement, weeds resisting all kinds of sharp tools, and weeds that have caused tough gardeners to ultimately surrender. As I listened, I realized many of the callers voted for a weed that was a dead ringer for the "elegant perennial" I had noticed. It was commonly called Japanese Knotweed, and it came out on top as Canada's most hated weed that day, over crabgrass, thistle and dandelions.

Needless to say, I began chipping away at that patch of knotweed in the woods, but my efforts to dig it up were only matched by the speediness of the smallest rhizomes to put on a spurt of growth. Japanese Knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum) is tolerant of most any soil or growing conditions. It grows fast, and can colonize abandoned spaces and fragile ecosystems alike. Since its introduction to the United States as an ornamental plant in 1910, it has made its way out of cultivation and onto invasive species lists of many states. My attitude toward the plant has changed in the same way.

I guess that's how I ended up with the asparagus-like weed on my dinner plate last night. After conversations with friends who had eaten the plant, plus a little bit of research, I was relishing the thought of snipping back tender new shoots and cooking them up! The patch where I foraged them is just beginning to sprout green shoots here and there, and the shoots are already starting to grow leaves. The shoots are most tender and flavorful before leaves come out, so I made sure to cut the youngest ones I could find.

Seeing as the stalks resembled asparagus so much in the way they looked, I steamed them to serve with fresh pasta, trout and peas. To my surprise, the taste was not at all like asparagus. They're the most similar thing to rhubarb I've ever tasted. They're tangy, fibrous, and slightly sweet, and the leftovers I have would be a great addition to quickbread or muffins. (New England wild edibles guru Russ Cohen recommends combining them with seasonal strawberries to make pie, and The Three Foragers tried using it to make wine.) Eating this weed is all in all a pleasant experience. Not only is knotweed pleasant to taste, but it's chalk-full of resveratrol, the antioxidant in grapes and wine that is becoming quite favorable. (For this reason, the knotweed is now being cultivated in China.)

Other invasive species I'd like to relish this season? Yes, plenty! I've got my eye out for garlic mustard, dandelion greens, European barberries, ramp, chickweed, and any other delectable edibles that dare to cross me.


  1. It must be delightfully satisfying to take knife and fork to such a pest!

  2. Good for you! Weeds of the earth, beware! :)

  3. Wow, you're braver than I! I love that you've turned your distaste for the weeds into a meal! Thanks for visiting my blog the other day and taking the time to pick my Painting with Light post. I appreciate it! Oh, btw, I love the name of your blog - clever.

  4. Ian's grandparents were given some shoots by friends and planted them in the garden of the first house they bought in Canada. They were recommended for quick growth and instant privacy which was a priority on this bare patch of a subdivision. True to form they looked lovely the first year, provided privacy along the fence the second year and then took over. The rest of the time that they lived there was spent trying to eradicate the lovely plant.

  5. That sounds daunting, Ingrid! I'm sure they're not the only ones. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Kate, I'm so glad I found your blog. I can't believe knotweed is edible. That's the only good thing I've ever heard about this plant. I can't even count the hours I've spent hacking at it and pulling it up at our cottage in Maine. Not to mention bee stings - note: best not to attack it when it's in bloom. I once dreamed of eradicating it from our property. Now I'm content just to prevent it from advancing. Even when pulled up by the roots, it still resprouts. And it grows so much faster than grass that it can quickly colonize, even when the lawn is being mowed biweekly. One time someone who was clearing it threw a bunch of the stalks in a heap at the back of the property. Somehow it regrew from these cut-off stalks and now there's a sizeable patch at the edge of the woods. AAAHHH. Clearly you've hit a nerve with me, as you can tell by the length of this post!

  7. Such a relentless plant. Reading your post gets me all riled up too, Sheila! Thanks for the tip about the blossoms attracting bees.

  8. Funny. I thought the same thing - elegant - when I first saw the flowers in the mountains in north Georgia. Fortunately it doesn't grow down near Atlanta where we live.


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