Survival of the fittest is the governing rule of the Darwinist jungle. But what is a plant or animal to do when an invasive species throws off the order of an entire ecosystem, monopolizing resources and choking out otherwise fit native species?
Every year, America spends $137 billion trying to get invasive species under control. Many websites alert hunters, fishermen, and foragers about the invasive species in their area, asking residents to notify authorities if such species are found. Humans are sometimes the only available predator that can potentially eradicate plants and animals brought in from other countries.
Luckily for our native flora and fauna, the march of some invasive species can be quelled by eating them.
It should be noted that many invasive species are poisonous and should by no means be consumed. But a handful of plants and animals, such as wild boars, are not only edible, but are both abundant and loaded with beneficial nutrients. If you're up for a bit of hunting and gathering, click through the gallery to learn about 10 invasive species you should eat right now.
Photo: Sylvain Cordier/Getty Images
Autumn-olive or Autumnberry
The autumn-olive, which now grows from Maine to Alabama and as far west as Wisconsin, is not only rampant, but happens to be jam packed with flavor and nutritional value. Marion Waak Newman, a chef who writes for Flavor and Fortune, says the flavor is akin to “several fruits, from currants and cranberries to peaches.” A study conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Research found that the autumn-olive berry has 17 times more lycopene per ounce than the average raw tomato. Even with its health benefits, the autumn-olive is an environmental threat due to its nitrogen fixing capabilities, which negatively affect the nitrogen cycles of native plants.
Photo: emilydickinson/Creative Commons via Flickr
The young leaves of prickly lettuce, a close relative of cultivated lettuces, are commonly eaten raw in salads or cooked with other vegetables. Like its farmed cousins, the plant becomes increasingly bitter as it gets older and goes to seed. American agriculture technology is struggling to adapt to the presence of prickly lettuce, a native of Egypt and Asia Minor—the latex the plant releases when cut can clog harvesting equipment.
Photo: Frank Mayfield/Creative Commons via Flickr
Although they are referred to as the good luck clam in parts of their native southern Asia, Asian clams are doing quick, damaging work in the waters of the West Coast. Their rapid self-fertilization produces large colonies, which clog pipes and waterways. Though they are smaller than the average clam you're familiar with from the fishmonger, Asian clams can still be utilized in the kitchen, and make a great substitute in many soups made with shellfish. Just make sure not to consume any bivalves or aquatic animals picked from polluted waters.
Photo: Danita Delimont/Getty Images
Garlic Mustard Plant
Introduced to the U.S. in the 1860s for food and medicine, garlic mustard has become an uncontrollable weed, and is now the dominant plant in many forests in the eastern part of the country. Because deer cannot palate the strong garlic flavor of this plant, the population of garlic mustard runs amok, altering the habitat of myriad insects, birds and mammals. You might sympathize with those deer if you eat garlic mustard on its own, but when mixed with other leafy greens its intensity provides a pleasantly pungent note. For a healthy and aromatic side dish, cook the plant with seasonal greens such as kale or chard.
Photo: RoderickT/Creative Commons via Flickr
Chinese Mitten Crabs
Considered a delicacy in parts of Asia, Chinese mitten crabs disrupt domestic fish migration and compete with other aquatic life for food and habitat. Before heading over to the Chesapeake Bay and the Hudson River, these furry-clawed crustaceans took up residence in both the Great Lakes and San Francisco Bay, far from their native waters of East Asia. Chinese mitten crabs yield large amounts of meat, which would be perfect in crab and avocado nachos or Shanghai pork-and-crab meatballs.
Photo: snickclunk/Creative Commons via Flickr
A member of the cod family, the cold-water dwelling burbot can be found in many lakes and rivers in Minnesota, but it is an invasive species in the Flaming George Reservoir in Utah and Wyoming, where it competes with the reservoir’s native smallmouth bass. In 2011, a Burbot Bash was held at the reservoir to eradicate the invasive fish—more than 4,000 fish were caught. If you can get past its eel-like, slimy appearance, burbot’s white flesh and sweet taste work well in fish and chips.
Photo: Wolfgang Poelzer/Getty Images
It might come as a shock to some that watercress, so widely used in salads, soups, and sandwiches, is an invasive species from Europe. Its ability to rapidly spread in lakes, ponds, and rivers makes watercress a threat to native plants. The best way to eradicate species from other regions of the world is to eat them; fortunately for us, watercress is a cancer-fighting powerhouse. Research from the University of Ulster found that a daily serving of watercress significantly reduces free-radical damage to blood cells and increases their resistance to further damage.
Photo: Alpha/Creative Commons via Flickr
The lionfish’s venomous spines make this predator deadly to its prey and dangerous to humans. Native to the tropical Indo-Pacific region, their violent presence in the Atlantic puts domestic species at risk—and the divers and fishermen that depend on them. Because they have no natural predators in American waters, these ferocious sea creatures can reproduce without competition. But fishermen are taking advantage of their large numbers, catching lionfish and making them safely available to shoppers. Grilled lionfish is an excellent filling for tacos, or you can marinate the raw fish in lime juice for a tangy ceviche.
Photo: ryasick/Getty Images
The sweet, white bulb of cultivated fennel is the most familiar form of this plant. Its unruly, wild cousin, which was brought to California by Italian immigrants, doesn’t bulb in the same manner, but don’t let that deter you from tracking it down—the fronds, flowers and seeds are charged with licorice-y flavor. The plant is a danger to California chaparral because it outcompetes native plants for space, light, water, and nutrients.
Photo: Cora Niele/Getty Images
The Himalayan blackberry is the most widely cultivated blackberry variety, and it is also found in feral abundance in the Pacific Northwest. The plant journeyed from its original home in Armenia to Germany in 1835, and was subsequently brought to America in 1885. The threat of the Himalayan blackberry stems from the impenetrable thickets it grows into, which curb the movement of large animals. The briars also block the sun from reaching other plants. If you get your hands on these sweet berries, consider putting them in a pie.
Christina previously worked in production and publicity at Red Hen Press in Los Angeles. She studied modern literature and linguistics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She enjoys writing about health, culture, food, and the environment for various print and online publications. Email Christina | @christinakhar