When I go out foraging I figure the worst things that could happen are mosquitoes, poison ivy, ticks - always ticks, and maybe some surly local wildlife.
For instance, a snapping turtle in the middle of a road that I considered moving. Fortunately, my friend Milo talked me out of it.
Milo is the son of the late great blues guitarist Maynard Silva from Oak Bluffs. I’ve known Milo since he was just a wee lad. Now an adult, Milo’s making sure I don’t get into trouble.
After high school Milo moved to Mongolia to study the horse-head fiddle. Now he’s made his way back to the island. When I run into him we usually talk about cooking mutton. But this spring, we went foraging for a vegetable – the Japanese knotweed – it’s absolutely prolific in our listening area. We went strolling on the back streets of his neighborhood in Oak Bluffs, and he pointed some out.
Japanese knotweed grows tall, up to 8 feet and like bamboo, the stalks are hollow and lightly streaked with red. It’ll blossom with small white-ish flowers later in the summer.
It’s edible but it’s also considered to be highly invasive and odious. The plant is so tenacious it can break through cement causing damage to roads and even the foundations of buildings. It likes fresh water – streams and ponds - and it seems to thrive around construction sites and parking lots.
I always associate knotweed with disturbed environments.
“Well there’s a lot about Oak Bluffs that is disturbed,” said Milo.
Milo can get away with saying that because he’s from here.
If you try to dig up this perennial to get rid of it, even a little nub of the rhizome or root left in the ground will propagate a whole round of new growth.
In fact, I heard though that if you knock it down it grows back stronger.
“It does,” said Milo. “As a child I used to hack through all of this with machetes and sort of improvised whacking-things and you know they just come back each year ever thicker, ever thicker.”
And when you’re going to eat it, which is what we did, that’s a good thing because the younger the stalks, the better. They’re less woody.
I asked Milo how he chooses them.
"The smaller the better, the more tender and this, the head here with all the cluster of leaves I found to be the very tastiest part and I’ve been peeling them, some people don’t the skin comes off quite easily. Nice and tender kind of like asparagus.”
It’s interesting, knotweed seems to go sweet or savory. Milo hasn’t tried the sweet yet. He’s prepared it pretty simply: boiled and eaten with tamari.
The dried root is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It’s high in resveratrol (that same thing found in red wine) and is high in antioxidants.
Stephen Buhner is a medicinal herbalist and award-winning author of the book Healing Lyme. He suggests that using the dried root can help protect and heal humans from Lyme.
It makes you wonder if part of the solution for treating Lyme - that is so prevalent here - may be growing all around us, but all we see is just a weed. What if we’re not seeing Japanese Knotweed for all that it could be: food and medicine?
Milo and I walk back with our stash of knotweed to his house, which is more like an artist’s studio. His girlfriend has etched what looks like a landscape into the enamel of the refrigerator and there’s a hand lettered note-to-self above the stove that says: “Milo: STOP Eating So FAST!” So he doesn’t burn his mouth.
I’ve been wondering and thinking about cooking with Japanese knotweed for years.
“I’ve heard about it, people have warned me against it, some people use Roundup to try and get rid of it – they actually mess with the whole ecosystem to try and get rid of this invasive species and talk about it, how it destroys the value of their property and so and so forth, but really honestly speaking if cultivated, if you make sure to get those fresh shoots it’d really be a delightful addition to the diet,” said Milo.
Milo looms over the cutting board not just because he’s tall but because he’s so visibly fascinated with the process of cooking and the swirling counter culture of this invasive weed which we’re about to eat with chop sticks, simply boiled and seasoned with tamari.
“Peeling and cutting them into manageable little slices and now the interesting thing since our water is boiling, note the color transformation see how it’s sort of a tea color now, sort of tea green. If we go over here throw it into the boiling water, it takes a little bit of time and slowly it’ll turn a pale green.”
Already the transformation begins.