Spring is indeed in the air. As I sit here writing this article (after cleaning approximately 100 Scarlet Elfcup fungus), I’m casually tucking into some delicious, homemade, spicy chicken & pork, wild garlic dolmade type parcels, including several other wild seasonal herbs, and joyfully day dreaming of nature’s abundant wild-spring-bounty to be.
Already, in Leeds and further afield, the usual, and unusual, ensemble of wild spring edibles are breaking through the soils, emerging from their winter hibernation. This naturally occurring, cyclical growth includes several plants that we all became familiar with as young children; stinging nettle, dandelion, cleavers aka sticky weed (you know the one), wild garlic and many more besides.
As much as I’d love to delve into the wide range of seasonal green treats a-growing, we have limited space and time, so I’m going to focus on one extremely versatile and tasty plant, Japanese Knotweed, yes, Japanese Knotweed!
Why pick Japanese Knotweed?
More to the point, why not? Japanese Knotweed is a member of the polygonaceae family, the exact same family as rhubarb, and as such, is as culinary versatile as rhubarb – who doesn’t like rhubarb? It’s also classed as a non-native, invasive species and grows at a remarkable rate, so gathering for cooking purposes isn’t an issue, as it’s not a rare, at risk species.
When, where and what to pick.
The best time to harvest is when the young shoots are no larger than 1 foot in height, usually mid-March to mid- April. Its preferred habitats are water courses, waste ground, railway embankments, gardens and allotments. If left unpicked it can grow as tall as 8 or 9 feet but at this stage it is very hard to render edible, it becomes impressively tough and stringy, so do pick it in its infancy. Knotweed shoots look like cylindrical spears, they have an olive-green hue with purple-crimson markings and taste very similar to rhubarb. Raw they are sharp, sour, crisp and refreshing (the sharp, sour taste is from a chemical called oxalic acid which in large quantities isn’t very good for you, so treat it as you would rhubarb).
Issues and myth debunking
Before we get to the funkier and tastier aspects of this wild, culinary star, we need to look at some of the issues and myths surrounding Japanese Knotweed. Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica) aka ‘arch-villain-number-1’ of the UK plant kingdom suffers from a somewhat tarnished reputation. Its propensity to spread and colonise so readily has created quite a furore over the years and this has led to what can only be described as a war on it, with some less-than-sound treatment techniques. Contrary to popular opinion and belief, it isn’t the terrible triffid, unwelcome squatter and habitat invader it’s been portrayed to be, it doesn’t smash down or through buildings like some bad tempered, testosterone-fuelled, teenage Godzilla! It’s seeming more likely that we humans have compromised the complex and intricate fabric of our wild spaces, and Knotweed is merely taking advantage of the environmental niches on offer to it.
How should we be treating it?
Probably the most ridiculous part of the knotweed saga is the way in which the majority of local councils, environmental contractors and some conservation bodies go about attempting to eradicate and control it by using herbicides laced with chemical toxins. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that those toxins get leached and absorbed into the surrounding soils, damaging them and a whole host of beneficial microscopic organisms, insects, birds and animals. Those chemicals will eventually enter the water system and us – when will such madness cease! Knotweed’s deep root system, in some non-mainstream circles, is even reported to aid in the eradication of soil contaminants such as heavy metals, by absorbing them via its roots and therefore it is helping to cleanse the soil, restoring it to better health. And given the seed is non-viable and that it only regrows from root sections, why aren’t we picking the tasty shoots? I’ve heard on the grapevine that the annual and continual picking of fresh stems eventually begins to weaken the rootstock – maybe we need to be looking at this as a solution to control and management while getting some tasty food in the process?
What can you make with it?
More to the point, what can’t you make with it? Knotweed lends itself perfectly to both sweet and savoury dishes and makes a cracking wine and a superb liqueur! To date I’ve enjoyed no less than 12 different products from it including; ketchup, chutney, jelly, jam, ice cream, sorbet, fruit leather, sweets, verjus (for wild cocktails), wine, liqueur, compote/puree. For simple and delicious ways of preparing knotweed, please go online, where you can also find my homemade Japanese knotweed ice cream recipe! If wild food dining is your thing, email firstname.lastname@example.org and come to one of the 4 Wild Season Pop Up Dining Experiences.