Invasive species are essentially a form of biological pollution—they degrade habitats, displace desirable species, and cost Oregonians millions of dollars annually in control treatments. But many of them happen to be edible. And so we have invasivores—people who eat invasive species. An invasivore helps protect native flora and fauna by dining on tasty and nutritious food. It’s a gastronomic, ecological, and moral victory.
But before we get carried away, let’s be realistic: few people are willing to eat New Zealand Mud Snails or Asian long-horned beetles. Nutria meat may be lean and low in cholesterol, but they’re essentially just giant South American rats. Even though feral cats are the most harmful invasive exotic species in North America, eating pets is taboo. It’s also good to be realistic about the effectiveness of invasivorism: you can eat the leaves, flowers, and roots of kudzu (Pueraria lobata), but there’s no way you’re going to make a dent in the “vine that ate the South.”
That said, some people take this task seriously. A Corvallis contingent of invasivores is associated with the Institute for Applied Ecology. There’re a number of invasivore cookbooks out there, including The Invasive Species Cookbook: Conservation Through Gastronomy. They come up with all sorts of clever slogans: “If you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em,” and “Eradication by mastication.” But you don’t have to be a full-fledged invasivore to enjoy the local, free, and nutritious edible invasives that surround us. You just need to know what they are.
With that in mind, we present five vegetables and five animals. Some are easy to procure, others more difficult, but all are delicious. Bon appétit.
- Himalayan Blackberries (Rubus armeniacus). This makes the top of the list for obvious reasons: So tasty, so invasive. If the prolific, succulent, and sweet berries aren’t reason enough to make pie or endless smoothies, think of it as taking revenge for all the rips in raingear caused by those wild, reaching brambles.
- Speaking of edible plants to take revenge upon: Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica). Put on gloves and long sleeves and pick the young leaves in spring (before the plants reach 30 centimeters tall). Cooking renders the little vicious stinging hairs into velvety, textured deliciousness. The greens, rich in vitamins and protein, can be used as a substitute for spinach.
- Another ubiquitous invasive that can be stir-fried or added raw to salads are Dandelion greens (Taraxacum officinale). Both the young leaves and the flower buds of this perennial weed can be eaten; blanching helps remove some of the bitterness. Dandelion leaves contain abundant vitamins and minerals, especially vitamins A, C, and K, and are good sources of calcium, potassium, iron, and manganese.
- Field mustard (Brassica rapa). Field mustard, which is another name for canola, bird rape, or turnip rape, is an aggressive agricultural weed. Its cultivated cousins include turnips, mizuna, and napa cabbage. Cook it as you would any leafy green. Another tasty invasive mustard is Garlic mustard (Alliariapetiolata). True to its name, the leaves, flowers, and fruit of this destructive little plant are reported to have a mild garlic-mustard flavor.
- Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is common in raised beds and garden plots across the Valley. Its succulent, deep-green oval leaves and watery stems taste lemony, and can be eaten raw or cooked (though they do become gelatinous when cooked). Purslane is a rich source of dietary iron and a good source of omega-3 fatty acids.
- Bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana). Interestingly enough, bullfrogs were introduced into Oregon as a food item—those tasty, tasty legs—in the early 1900s. Unfortunately, they thrive in Oregon’s wet climate, devouring native turtles and frogs; transmitting disease to native species; aggressively competing for food and habitat; and reproductively overwhelming native frogs. As a controlled species, bullfrogs can be legally harvested year-round; no angling license is required. As the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife says: You will be doing wildlife and habitat a favor. However, make sure you have first identified the frog as a bullfrog. Most native frogs are protected and cannot be removed from the wild or killed.
- European green crab (Carcinus maenas). A relative newcomer to Oregon—first appearing in 1997—green crabs feed on young mussels, urchins, cockles, and barnacles. Crab is delectable, of course, but these suckers are small, with a carapace up to four inches at most, so getting enough meat can be time-consuming.
- Rusty Crayfish (Orconectes rusticus), Red Swamp Crayfish (Procambarus clarkii), and Northern Ringed Crayfish (Orconectes neglectus) are all invasive and all compete with the good ol’ native signal crayfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus). So make sure you’re netting the right ones. But once you do, put a big pot of water on the stove, buy some Zatarain’s Crawfish, Shrimp & Crab Boil Seasoning, spread some newspaper on the table, and get ready to feast.
- Feral Swine (genus Sus). One word: bacon.
by Nathaniel Brodie