Invasion of the Delicacies! Sometimes the best weapon against alien invaders is a light vinaigrette

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story by Alex ZorachI like to eat invasive plants. Sounds scary, right? Invasive species are plants or animals that have been introduced from other regions, accidentally or on purpose, and have negative impacts on local ecosystems. Whether or not you realize it, you have probably seen many invasive plants—they’re in gardens, vacant lots and even between cracks in the sidewalk.

People are sometimes skeptical when they see me picking berries or gathering leafy herbs from an overgrown area. “How do you know that’s not poisonous?” they ask. But other people are curious, and some share information on where to find the best berry bushes or herb patches.

As I learned to identify more plants, I became appalled at how many around us were invasives. But with this distressing news, I also discovered that many are edible. This is no coincidence; lots of invasive plants were originally introduced as food. Eating invasives is a logical way to control them: It turns a problem into a free, local food source.

I started out by plucking a little garlic mustard—a leafy herb—and picking Japanese wineberries, a relative of raspberries. Often, I’ve identified new edible non-native species, not by reading field guides or scouring botany websites, but by looking through the vegetables in ethnic groceries. I saw a vegetable labeled “xian cai” in an Asian grocery, and later found the same plant, a cultivated form of amaranth with red and green leaves, growing in my neighborhood.

My favorite invasive herb is perilla, or shiso in Japanese. Perilla, a member of the mint family, is abundant in Philadelphia, growing in flower beds, pots and the brick sidewalks of Center City alleyways. It forms huge patches in the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge and Cobbs Creek Park. Because it looks similar to coleus, a popular ornamental, gardeners often let it grow wild. I gather and dry large volumes of it for use in the winter.

While harvesting wild plants can be time-intensive, it’s more fun than work for me, and I’m saving money I’d normally be spending at the supermarket. The process of seeking out plants to harvest is exciting, and helps me get to know the city’s wild areas. I don’t have a garden, so harvesting invasives has given me access to free, locally grown food that I would not otherwise have.

Several of my friends share my passion for eating invasives. Recently, a group of us gathered for a feast featuring as many invasive and non-native species as we could find. While we still needed to purchase a few staple foods, every dish featured wild harvested plants, and we had an abundance of green vegetables and herbs. The result was delicious.

Learning to identify edible invasives takes work, but for me, it has definitely been worth it. Eating these plants is a triple win: I’m accessing a free food source, exposing my palate to new flavors and perhaps more importantly, helping protect local ecosystems.

ALEX ZORACH lives in West Philadelphia. He runs numerous websites, including RateTea, and is a co-founder of Why This Way, a consensus-run belief system and organization.