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Wild things

Japanese Knotweed, an invasive species in the wild, is a main ingredient in the sauce for this pasta dish topped with field garlic pesto.

April 23, 2014

Despite late, unwanted snowfalls, spring has arrived, bringing optimism, birdsong and new life to our fields and streams. As soon as the earth wakes up, it immediately stars putting forth its bounty. In the garden, rhubarb, angelica, sorrel and mint rouse us from our root vegetable slumber and, out in the wild, tender tips of ramps, Japanese knotweed and field garlic present the first vivid glimpses of green. If you’ve never tried eating directly from nature’s pantry, perhaps this is the year you’ll venture into new terrain. There is a distinct thrill in finding food in the wilderness—it’s free, it’s packed with nutrition and it’s unusually delicious. (Note to newbies: Go with a mentor or consult a plant book to positively identify anything before consuming it. Always remember, when in doubt, throw it out!) The recent popularity of ramps has made foraging for them the subject of some controversy, but this is not the case with field garlic and knotweed, since both are highly invasive species. Gather them freely without fear of disturbing the ecosystem.

Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica), a vigorous plant that was coveted in Victorian times for the delicate sprays of white flowers it produces in late summer, is considered among the most problematic invasive plants in this country. It spreads quickly and often takes over roadsides and riverbanks. Despite its bamboo-like appearance, it’s actually related to buckwheat, as is rhubarb, with which it shares hollow stalks and mouth-puckering astringency. The tender shoots make the best eating, so harvest them at about 6 to 8 inches, and use them in both sweet and savory preparations. They can be gently steamed and served with a rich hollandaise sauce to counter their lemony tartness, or pureed with a little cream into a piquant sauce for pasta. Roast them with strawberries and orange zest, then bake into a pie or serve as a compote with vanilla ice cream. Larger stalks are also edible, but peel off the stringy outer layer before cooking. With plenty of sugar, they make a wonderful marmalade.