Posts Tagged ‘Invasive plants’

Using What You Have VI: Eating the Siberian Elm


I know a wonderful forager in Flagstaff who mentioned eating Siberian elm leaves, and commented on their mild flavor. I have been meaning for years to look for more uses for the noxious invasive elm, and my goat and chickens eat huge amounts, but I had only found one source alluding to them being edible by people, so I was hesitant. But if Mike says it I believe it, so I was newly inspired to experiment. I could imagine the texture being chewy, as is often the case with tree leaves, so I decided on a context in which the leaves would be chopped very finely. A pasta akin to spinach pasta seemed like a natural experiment.
I was just playing around in the yard, so all measurements given here are inexact. This makes two servings. I gathered a double handful of tree leaves, mostly young Siberian elm tips but also a small fig leaf, a very large grape leaf, and some young mulberry leaves. Fresh pasta only cooks for a minute or two, so I precooked the leaves in the steamer for seven minutes at fairly high heat. Once they were steamed, I turned them out on a cutting board and chopped them roughly with a knife. Then I put a heaping cup of flour in the food processor, added the leaves, and ran the machine until the leaves were chopped as finely as possible. Then I added egg yolks one at a time until the dough formed. For me, this took five yolks. It might be more or less depending on your ambient humidity and your flour. At this point I had a smooth, slightly sticky lump of dough.

I set the dough aside for half an hour to rest, and then set out a cutting board generously sprinkled with flour. I used my Kitchenaid pasta roller to roll the dough, but you could use a hand-crank roller or roll it by hand. Use as much flour as you need to keep it rolling smoothly. I have a metal clothes-drying rack that I use to hang the sheets of pasta as I work with them. This is a good way to keep them organized. Also, they look pretty when sunlight from the window glows through them. These transient pleasures are part of home cooking.


I rolled up the sheets, dusting with flour again, and cut them into linguine by hand because I like the uneven edges that result from hand-cutting. They do have to be delicately untangled after cutting.

Once the pasta is cut, dinner is simple. Heat up a pot of salted water to boiling, and while it’s heating, set out 2 tablespoons  of good grassfed butter and grate a handful of top-quality Parmesan. Have a strainer ready in your sink, and set out two pasta bowls. Have your pepper grinder ready; I have a separate grinder for white peppercorns for more delicate dishes like this one. Put the noodles in the boiling water, keep the heat high, and start testing by biting a fished-out strand as soon as the pot returns to a full boil. Mine was done in about one and a half minutes of boiling. Scoop out about half a cup of water for a “pasta roux” and dump the noodles into the strainer. While they drain, add the butter to the pot, grate about ten turns of the pepper mill over the butter, and return the hot noodles to the pot. This all has to happen fairly quickly, before the noodles stick together. Add most of the grated cheese, toss with two wooden spoons, and add only enough of the pasta water to make the noodles move freely when tossed. Serve into the waiting bowls and top with a bit more cheese.

Here’s how the noodles look before the additional cheese is added. They’re good this way too, but I do like the grainy texture of unmelted Parmesan on top.

We found this absolutely delicious, but then it’s hard to go wrong when you’re using really high-quality Parmesan. It makes everything taste good, so I make no special claims for my leaf pasta. I can say that there is no strong or objectionable flavor of any kind and the texture is light and lovely. It makes use of one of the most Godawful weed trees imaginable, and makes it taste good, and I am satisfied with that. Beyond question, it adds additional fiber to the pasta. What it adds beyond that is unclear, since there is no nutritional analysis of Siberian elm leaves that I can locate. Be satisfied with the fact that you are eating your invasives and they taste good.
This would also be a delicious pasta with some really good olive oil and pinenuts, and it would be excellent for lasagna. I’m also going to try adding some fresh herbs at the processing stage so that their flavor is actually incorporated within the pasta; I think marjoram would be particularly good in this context. Some cream would be great in the sauce.

A Quick Note on Bamboo

I love bamboo shoots, and several years ago I bought two plants of Phyllostachys dulcis, the famously invasive and delicious sweetshoot bamboo. I enriched the soil, planted and mulched, supplied plenty of water, and waited confidently for them to invade, so that I could start eating. Four years later the two plants are a scraggly 5’ tall each. Each year one or the other, but not both, makes exactly one spindly shoot which often follows a kamikaze trajectory toward the goat paddock.   In all this time, I have eaten exactly one bamboo shoot. It was very good, but a pretty poor return on investment.

This May, after a few days of absence from the garden, I was looking along the fence row inspecting hops vines  when outside my fence, in the desert open space, I saw a startlingly robust bamboo shoot almost 20 feet tall.  Phyllostachys dulcis is spreading out into an area that is impacted, alkaline, and gets only our natural rainfall, which is 10 to 11 inches per year.  In short, it is a bamboo’s version of Hell, and yet this is where my expensive and pampered plants have chosen to stake their claim.

Plants are naturally perverse, and the more you want a particular plant to flourish, the more perverse it typically becomes.  It is as if they thumb their noses at the whole concept of domestication.  But next spring I will watch the desert strip outside the fence and see if the miracle repeats itself. If so, I may finally harvest enough bamboo shoots to be worthwhile.  If it finally begins to behave like a real invasive, I can always take my goat out on a leash to teach P. dulcis some manners.

I should add that if you don’t live in the desert, you can’t afford to be cavalier about invasive plants. Be aware of your neighbors, don’t invade their space unintentionally, and if you plant an invasive bamboo you really need to create proper rhizome barriers. My P. dulcis  plants have a foraging goat between them and any neighbors, and the part of the open space they are growing into actually belongs to my property. I doubt that they can get far on 11” of water annually, but if they show truly invasive behavior out there I have room to make a concrete barrier.  I have never seen a bamboo get out of hand here in the desert, and don’t anticipate it happening now, but I’ll act assertively if it does.

My Life With Invasives

I’m reading Beyond the War on Invasive Species, an interesting book by Tao Orion that, among other things, recalls some of the horrors that the native plant ecomovement fell into, such as “nuking” large areas repeatedly with Round-Up so that they could eventually be replanted with “pure” native species. The whole issue of how to think about invasives is complicated, and I will not approach it here. But the role of invasives in my own yard is one that I feel able to tackle.  My yard is happily multicultural and can absorb almost any invasive that has a use to me, my livestock, or our local pollinators. Over the years I’ve been surprised by plants that came with warnings about their aggressive nature, but in my yard struggled or even died.

There are lots of invasives here, mostly introduced by me and mostly cherished. To have dandelions, I had to pay good money for seed and then wait impatiently as they took three years to get large and lush and edible. Now they are finally self-seeding a bit and are welcome almost anywhere they appear.

Gojis took a while to settle in but now come up everywhere, which is fine since I like the leaves and young shoots as well as the berries.

Nettles, shown at the top of this post,  are my favorite spring greens, and it has turned out to be very possible to manage them for a fall crop of greens as well. They aren’t found in my high desert area and I had to buy plants to get them. They are probably my favorite invasive.  The first nettle patch was located in an area that has concrete walkway all around it, to foil its dreams of world domination. I have started a couple of other nettle patches this spring in large containers. I’ll report back on how this works out.

Arugula  comes up everywhere, and is welcome almost everywhere it appears. It is one of my favorite salad greens, and makes a fairly good cooked green as well, best with stronger seasonings like garlic and cayenne. The flowers are very attractive to bees  and open at a time when little else is flowering, so I always let plenty of it go to seed.

At this point I would have to classify elephant garlic as an invasive, because no matter how much of it I pull up, I always seem to have even more the following year.  When I threw an arm full on top of straw mulch just to get rid of it, it sent roots down  through the mulch and took off as you see above. I don’t mind it, though. It isn’t much use as a bulb and does not compare to true garlic, but I like the early shoots for green garlic, so it does have a use, and the bees enjoy any flowers that I allow to form.

Speaking of attractive to bees, cardoon has become quite an invasive in my yard but one that, as you see above, has its admirers.  I loved cardoons when I ate them in Italy, and brought back seeds from there to make sure that I got the edible kind and not the florist kind, but I have never been able to eat my homegrown cardoons. No matter how carefully blanched, they are inedibly bitter. They do provide one wonderful vegetable, the peeled top of the bloom scape before the buds swell, but that is one small serving per very large plant. I still let them seed themselves around though, because the bees and my goat adore them and even in my desert climate and alkaline soil, they come up in odd corners and require no care or attention whatsoever. The huge jagged silver leaves are strikingly ornamental.  When they come up in the middle of garden beds, I let them reach a good size and then pull them for the goat. I have read that the large parsnip-like root is edible, but when grown in my yard it is as bitter as the leaves, and is a flavor that only a goat could love.

Scrawny little Phyllostachys dulcis “invading.”

I love bamboo shoots and can seldom  find fresh ones locally, so growing them seemed obvious.  I planted  clumping bamboo and the famously invasive running sweet shoot bamboo.  The latter is famous for overrunning its boundaries and forming 30 foot high jungles, so I sited it in a part of the yard up next to the goat paddock, figuring that I could always turn her loose on it if worst came to worst.  Three years later, each plant now has two or three wimpy looking canes about 5 feet high, and I have eaten exactly one bamboo shoot. It was very good, and I was glad to have it,  but I am still waiting for the abundant shoots that I was told would pop up absolutely everywhere.  The aristocratic clumping bamboos took one look at their pedestrian setting and refused to go on living.

Burdock bloomscape at right stage for peeling and cooking.

Burdock has done a better job of becoming an invasive. I don’t care for the roots that much, and planted it because the peeled bloom scape is a fair vegetable, and I assumed that since I was eating it before the flowers formed, I would be able to keep the plant from reproducing. It fooled me. If you keep cutting off the bloomscape, it forms little short bloomscapes down under the huge leaves where you don’t see them, and seeds itself thickly all around the parent plant.  Dogs wandering through the patch pick up the burrs and plant more elsewhere.  Still, the leaves are a favorite goat treat, and I don’t mind having it around.

Common milkweed is one of my favorite wild edibles, as well as being a great bee plant and the chosen food of the monarch butterfly larva, and for years I have been trying to get it to become invasive, but in my yard it remains as fussy as orchids.  Ordinarily I run a Darwinian garden and will not make great efforts to keep any plant going when its natural inclination is to die, but I have really gone out of my way for the milkweed, and it has not reciprocated. Finally, this year it is beginning to spread a little bit, but there is still not enough to eat any.

Silver nightshade is the only invasive plant in my area that I truly despise and can find no use for, which is a shame because it’s everywhere. If you think it looks pretty, you haven’t gotten to know it. The roots lie several feet underground and are invulnerable. The plant comes up everywhere, and is covered with small prickles that are not only painful but break off in your skin with any touch and cause irritations that last days. The leaves are poisonous to livestock. There is no argument to be made for its existence except that, unfortunately, it does exist.  It does not seem possible to have less of it. I blush to admit that once, many years ago, I was so infuriated by it that I tried spraying some with Round-up, and I must say that it shriveled up over the next several days in a very satisfying way. Unfortunately, within a few weeks it had rebounded and was growing up happily and thickly from the roots, seeming invigorated by the experience.  So do not bother sacrificing your organic credibility, because it won’t work anyway.  Every now and then I run its scientific name through the medical databases, hoping that somebody somewhere will have found a chemical in it that treats a rare cancer or something like that, so that I will feel differently about its general uselessness. But so far, it remains one of nature’s blights. It seems to be highly aggressive in dry soils and doesn’t compete well in damp areas, so maybe as humus and moisture increase in my soil, it will be less of a problem.

Read the book if you are really interested in a different way of thinking about invasives.