Harvesting And Eating Invasive Plants

A wealth of edible wild plants is flourishing all around us, often unnoticed. Despite their attractive attributes, many of these wild edibles have been neglected, overlooked, or deemed unimportant. Some remain practically invisible to most people. The edible invasive plants highlighted here are wild foods that I regularly incorporate into my meals when they’re in season.

Edible invasive plants:


Status: Commonly found throughout Canada, as well as in the Western and Eastern United States.

Location: Thrives in open areas and gardens; occasionally available in supermarkets and Chinatowns.

Season: Spring and late fall.

Parts Used: Taproot and immature stem.

Culinarily known as “gobo” (Arctium lappa), burdock has been cultivated in Japan for its long, starchy taproot for centuries. Its earthy flavor makes it perfect for hearty, cold-weather dishes, adding a sweet, starchy element to sauces and stews. In wild plants, the root is best eaten late in the first year or during the second spring, as it becomes more fibrous by the end of its growing season. Harvesting a 2-to-3-foot taproot requires determination and skilled digging.

Burdock roots contain inulin, an indigestible carbohydrate that can cause gas. To mitigate this, parboil or soak the roots, as inulin is water-soluble. Alternatively, you can harvest the immature flowering stems in late spring. These stems are easy to forage and have a taste reminiscent of both globe and Jerusalem artichokes when cooked. The best time to harvest is when the stems are between 1 and 3 feet tall, still immature, and in the meristem stage. Once lateral shoots appear, the stems become too fibrous.

Raw burdock stems are succulent and crisp. When cooked, they absorb flavors well and caramelize nicely when sautéed with oil or butter. I like to prepare the stems by cutting them into 1-inch pieces and adding white wine, lemon juice, fennel fronds, coriander seeds, and extra-virgin olive oil at the end. Sometimes, I also include whole garlic cloves or carrot slices. Another option is to sliver the stems lengthwise, blanch them, and then sauté them for inclusion in linguine. Miso and soy sauce pair naturally with the stems, which can be cooked whole and served like asparagus. The peeled midribs of the large leaves are a crisp and tasty vegetable, great when chopped and added raw to salads or pickled.

How to Harvest and Prepare

To harvest burdock stems, start by cutting off the leaves that radiate from the stems. Cut the stem as close to the ground as possible, discarding the skinny top portion. You can keep some of the midribs of the leaves by stripping the leaf from each midrib on the spot. Remember, peeling is crucial.

If you accidentally lick your fingers after handling any aboveground parts of burdock, you’ll notice its intense bitterness. Some foragers collect and eat the young leaves, but they require extensive boiling to eliminate the bitterness.

To prepare the stems, strip and trim every bit of green to reveal the tender, pale cream pith. This process significantly reduces the volume: 1.5 pounds of unpeeled burdock stems yield about 8 ounces of prepared stems. The peeled parts may discolor, but you can prevent this by dropping them into a bowl of acidulated water as you work. Unlike the roots, the stems don’t need to be soaked or parboiled.

For harvesting the roots, it’s easiest in early winter or early spring when the ground is workable but before new leaves appear. Dig deep and straight down around the burdock crown. Once you’ve dug as deep as possible, angle your shovel under the root, tilt, and lift. Severing the root might be unavoidable.

At home, scrub the roots thoroughly and trim off any whiskery side roots without removing the flavorful skin. If making pickles, soak the shredded or cut root in water for at least an hour before rinsing and pickling. If cooking, cut the roots into sections no longer than 2 inches, parboil for 45 minutes, and discard the water.

Garlic Mustard

alliaria petiolata

Status: Invasive biennial herb

Location: Widespread in forests, along roadsides, and disturbed areas

Season: Early spring to late fall

Parts Used: Leaves, stems, flowers, roots, seeds

Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), native to Europe, was introduced to North America as a culinary and medicinal herb. This invasive plant thrives in shaded areas and disturbed grounds, outcompeting native flora and disrupting local ecosystems. It can grow in dense patches, creating a carpet that inhibits the growth of other plants.

The edible parts of garlic mustard are abundant and versatile. The leaves have a garlicky flavor, especially pungent in early spring. The tender, young leaves are best for salads, pestos, and as a garnish. As the plant matures, the leaves become more bitter but can still be used in cooked dishes where the bitterness mellows.

The stems, when young and tender, are excellent for stir-fries and soups. As they mature, they can be tougher but are still usable if finely chopped. Garlic mustard flowers, which bloom in late spring, are small, white, and add a spicy kick to salads and garnishes.

The roots of garlic mustard, harvested in early spring or late fall, have a horseradish-like flavor. They can be grated and used as a spice or pickled for later use. The seeds, forming in slender pods in summer, can be collected and used as a peppery seasoning.

How to Harvest and Prepare

To harvest garlic mustard, look for the young, green rosettes in early spring. These are the most tender and flavorful. As the plant bolts and flowers, the leaves become more bitter. The tender stems can be harvested along with the leaves. Cut them near the base, taking care to leave the root in the ground if you wish to prevent further spread.

The roots can be dug up in early spring or late fall. Wash them thoroughly and peel if necessary. Grate the roots for a horseradish-like condiment or pickle them for later use. The seeds can be collected when the pods are dry. Shake the pods over a paper bag to release the seeds.

Garlic mustard leaves can be used fresh in salads, blended into pestos, or sautéed like spinach. The flowers make a spicy addition to salads and garnishes. The stems can be added to stir-fries and soups, while the roots provide a spicy kick to sauces and condiments. The seeds can be used whole or ground as a seasoning.

Garlic mustard is a versatile invasive plant that offers numerous culinary uses while helping to manage its spread in natural areas.

Black Locust

robinia pseudoacacia

Status: Common, native to the Southeast and Northeast United States.

Location: Found along streets, in gardens, forests, and parks.

Season: Late spring.

Parts Used: Flowers.

One of the delights for foragers in late spring is the appearance of black locust blossoms (Robinia pseudoacacia). These flowers bloom just as roses and peonies are reaching their peak in gardens. Also known as “acacia” or “false acacia,” black locust trees are widespread across North America. It’s crucial to pick the flowers as soon as you see them in bloom to ensure they are fresh.

The best way to capture the sweet taste and scent of these fragrant edible flowers is through a cold-infused syrup (since heat can destroy delicate flavors) or a fermented cordial. These infusions can then serve as bases for various recipes limited only by your imagination.

The flowers themselves have a delightful texture. The pea-like blossoms are crunchy and sweet. While I prefer them raw, they are also delicious in fritters. Like elderflower fritters, black locust fritters are a rare treat, especially when drizzled with honey infused with fresh flowers overnight.


How to Harvest and Prepare

To harvest black locust flowers, pick open flower clusters and place them in a basket or paper bag. Ensure you select only perfectly fresh flowers, avoiding any bunches with withered blooms. The closed white buds are also edible but lack the aroma suitable for cordials or syrups.

Use the flowers as soon as possible. Process them quickly for infusions to preserve their scent. If necessary, store fresh flowers overnight in a tightly folded paper bag, but avoid refrigeration. Washing the flowers will dilute their scent, so simply shake them gently to remove any insects. If you plan to use the flowers for fritters or salads, they will stay fresh for several days in a covered bowl or wrapped in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.


taraxacum officinale

Status: Invasive perennial weed

Location: Widespread in lawns, gardens, roadsides, and disturbed areas

Season: Spring to early fall

Parts Used: Leaves, flowers, roots

The common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), originally from Europe and Asia, has spread across North America and beyond, thriving in a variety of environments. Known for its bright yellow flowers and characteristic toothed leaves, dandelion is often considered a nuisance in lawns and gardens. However, it is a highly nutritious and versatile edible plant.

Dandelion leaves are best harvested in early spring when they are young and tender, offering a slightly bitter flavor that is rich in vitamins A, C, and K, as well as minerals like iron and calcium. These young leaves can be used fresh in salads, sautéed, or added to soups and stews. As the leaves mature, they become more bitter but can still be used in cooking to add a robust flavor.

The bright yellow flowers bloom from spring through early fall and can be used to make dandelion wine, jelly, or fritters. The petals add a splash of color and a mild sweetness to salads and baked goods.

Dandelion roots, which are best harvested in the fall, can be roasted and ground to make a caffeine-free coffee substitute or used fresh in various culinary applications. The roots contain inulin, a type of fiber beneficial for gut health.

How to Harvest and Prepare

To harvest dandelion leaves, look for the young, tender leaves in early spring. These are less bitter and more palatable. The leaves can be collected throughout the growing season but may require blanching or cooking to reduce bitterness as they mature. Simply pull the leaves from the base of the plant, and rinse them thoroughly before use.

Dandelion flowers should be harvested when they are fully open and bright yellow. Pick them on a dry, sunny day to ensure the best flavor. The petals can be removed from the green base, which can be bitter, and used fresh or dried for later use.

To harvest dandelion roots, dig around the base of the plant in the fall when the roots are at their largest and most flavorful. Clean the roots thoroughly to remove any soil. They can be sliced and used fresh, or roasted and ground for a coffee substitute.

Dandelion leaves are excellent fresh in salads, bringing a slightly bitter, peppery note. They can also be sautéed with garlic and olive oil, added to soups, or used in herbal teas. The flowers can be used to make wine, jelly, or fritters, or sprinkled fresh over salads. Dandelion roots are versatile; they can be roasted and brewed as a coffee alternative, added to soups and stews, or even used in herbal medicine for their detoxifying properties.

Dandelion is a highly nutritious plant that offers a range of culinary uses while also helping to control its spread in lawns and gardens.

Japanese Knotweed

fallopia japonica

Status: Noxious perennial weed

Location: Commonly found near streams, rivers, woodlands, and disturbed ground

Season: Spring

Parts Used: Shoots, tender leaf tips, flowers

Originating from East Asia, Japanese knotweed was introduced to the United States as a garden ornamental. This plant, known for its jointed stems and bamboo-like growth, dies back to the ground every winter and re-emerges in spring. Its variety, Fallopia japonica var. compacta, is listed as a noxious weed in many states due to its dense colonies that outcompete native plants and disrupt local ecosystems. Knotweed shoots can even damage asphalt and concrete.

The edible part of Japanese knotweed is its young shoot, resembling an asparagus spear. These tart stems are rich in resveratrol, an antioxidant polyphenol known for its anti-inflammatory properties. The thickest, plumpest shoots are the most tender and juicy, while thinner ones can be fibrous.

Japanese knotweed has an earthy, sour flavor. While mature shoots are more acidic, raw knotweed is less astringent than rhubarb, though it softens similarly when cooked. Moist heat causes knotweed to melt, whereas dry heat gives it a bit more texture, though it can become leathery if left uncovered too long in the oven.

When the shoots are tender, the entire stem can be used. The sour stems are ideal for pickling. Cooked, the stalks mellow and soften, akin to cooked sorrel. They lose their bright color when heated, turning swamp green but retaining their taste. Knotweed pairs well with creamy ingredients like dairy, coconut milk, and eggs. It’s excellent in sauces, mashed potatoes, roasted with baby potatoes, or puréed into leek and potato soups. Many foragers use knotweed as a rhubarb substitute.

Once the stems mature and become tough, the young, unfurling leaf tips remain edible and have more crunch than cooked stems. Briefly sauté them to add to omelets, spring meatballs, green stews with fava beans, or as a tart side dish for rich entrées.

How to Harvest and Prepare

To harvest shoots in early spring, look for areas with last season’s old canes—long, dry, brown, and hollow. Avoid areas with only spindly shoots, as they might have been sprayed the previous year. Cut the youngest, plumpest green shoots at the base. Taller, more mature shoots can be cut higher up, focusing on the tender meristem parts of the plant. Your knife should easily slice through these tender areas. Peel the membrane from tougher stems and discard the tough joints between hollow sections. Tender shoots can be eaten whole.

In summer, tiny, fragrant, white flowers appear on the Japanese knotweed. Cut whole flower stalks and gently shake them to remove insects. Strip the flowers off the stalks at home. They add a sour note to salads or can be used in fermented soda pop or cordial.



Embracing these edible invasive plants offers a unique opportunity to turn ecological challenges into culinary adventures. These plants, often regarded as nuisances, are rich in nutrients and flavors, and their inclusion in our diets can help manage their spread while adding diversity to our meals. By learning how to identify, harvest, and prepare these resilient species, we can make sustainable choices that benefit both our health and the environment. So next time you encounter these prolific invaders, consider them not as pests, but as untapped resources waiting to be discovered.

Suggested resources for preppers:

How to find Food in any Environment

The #1 food of Americans during the Great Depression

Survival Foods of the Native Americans

If you see this plant when foraging, don’t touch it!

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