I don’t hate plants, though I do sometimes hate looking at them for too long. For that reason trees are among my favorite plants. They are large and easy to identify from a distance. They are easy to identify while hiking, or even driving, so they don’t require frequent, extended, stops; crouching, squinting, and thumbing through field guides. That tedious behavior is mercifully reserved for identifying spring ephemerals, for instance, or maybe a shrub here and there in a region we haven’t visited before.
I would gladly walk by the unidentified plants and save my energy for birds, maybe mountains, definitely lunch. The plants are part of the wallpaper. My wife, on the other hand, puts plants first. She puts plants first in part because its her job. Known to some readers of this blog, my wife, Sara Kuebbing, is an ecologist who studies invasive plants. In trying to teach me to love plants, she has pushed me precariously close to hating them.
I can learn to hate the plants she loves because she looks at them so carefully and for so long. She has taught me to almost hate the plants she studies as well because they are harmful invasive species that cause ecological and economic damage.With so many reasons to hate plants, how can I learn to love them? I just have to remind myself that in many cases they taste good.
A little more than a decade ago I was walking through an urban park with my dad when I noticed a patch of wood sorrel. I picked a bit and ate it. Wood sorrel (Oxalis spp.) is an abundant plant across most of the world, and it has a nice, slightly sweet, slightly acidic taste. My dad reacted with unparalleled shock.
“You can’t just eat a plant!” he yelled.
“Almost everything we eat is plants, Dad.”
“But dogs don’t pee on the plants we get from farms,” he argued.
I doubted his argument then and I doubt it now. Dogs probably do pee on plants at the farm, though I suppose we often rinse our veggies and the grains we eat are so processed that not much dog urine makes it to our mouths.
In any case, the real issue isn’t pee, it is poop. Shortly after this conversation with my dad there was an E. coli outbreak that killed and sickened people across the country. The outbreak stemmed from wild boar that made their way to, and pooped in, spinach fields. Wild boar are an invasive species in North America, having come along with early Europeans as a source of food. No matter how good they taste and how many people have been chasing them down for food, between their smarts—which make them difficult to hunt successfully—and their reproduction—which allows rapid population growth—the population of invasive boar continues to grow and spread. Boar are not just a threat to the safety of our food supply. Among some advocates boar are also offered as a win-win source of food. Americans are happy to eat pig and since wild boar create ecological, economic, and public health harms, the activists—sometimes self-titled as “invasivores”—suggest that we should eat more boar. The idea is that if we can consume enough invasive pig we can control the pig population. The invasivores don’t stop with pigs, of course, they also propose that we control invasive plants by eating them to extinction.
I am a skeptic of eating invasive species as a policy response. Heaven knows it isn’t because I love plants too much to eat them. It’s because I don’t think it will work. As with the pigs, sometimes the rates of population growth and the nature of harvesting would require such enormous appetites that it just doesn’t make sense. For example, we aren’t so hungry for garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) that we could eat away at the invasive populations of this herbaceous lowland weed. Moreover, if we are eating a lot of it, moving it around in streams of commerce, and building a new love for the species, we’re likely to see it spread, not fade away.
And yet, I don’t just eat native Wood sorrel, I also eat invasive garlic mustard. Sara and I moved into a new home just last month. The previous owners moved out a year before so the yard was in a bit of disarray. (“Was”. Who am I kidding? The yard is definitely still in disarray). Among the weeds overgrowing our new house is garlic mustard. So what better way to get rid of some weeds, limit their spread into neighbor’s yards, and to put food on the table, than to make some Garlic mustard pesto? Here’s the recipe: Pick several cups of the young plants. The older plants are too tough. Mix the leaves with a few cloves of garlic, a half cup of olive oil, pine nuts or walnuts, salt, pepper, and parmesan cheese. Blend everything and let it sit overnight.
While the policy of controlling invasive species by commercializing them seems to have intractable flaws, the individual habit of casually eating invasive plants doesn’t give me too much pause. After all, it’s a way to turn a hater like me into a lover.
Josh Galperin is a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. He studies environmental law and occasionally invasive species policy. Josh tweets about boar, plants, garlic mustard and many other topics @JoshGalperin.
*Parts of this post are drawn from previous writings, including Joshua Ulan Galperin, No Farms No Food?: A Response to Baylen Linnekin, 45 Fordham Urb. L. J. (2018) and Joshua Ulan Galperin and Sara E. Kuebbing, Eating Invaders: Managing Biological Invasions with a Fork and Knife? 28-FALL Nat. Resources & Env't 41 (2013).