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Asian carp, imported from China in 1973 to clean algae from Southern ponds, broke from their confines and infested the Mississippi River waterways. (Jim Weber / ZUMA Press / Corbis)

Making the Best of Invasive Species

Garlic mustard and Asian carp can wreak havoc on their ecosystems, but do they have a future on your dinner plate?

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The lowly garlic mustard had never seen so much love.

This prolific invasive plant—cursed by home gardeners and park and wildlife managers alike—is routinely wrenched from the ground or spritzed with herbicide in an attempt to keep it from taking over. But on April 14 at Cleveland’s Shaker Lakes Nature Center, garlic mustard was the guest—or rather, pest—of honor.

“Pestival 2011” featured seven of Cleveland’s most notable chefs making garlic mustard a gourmet treat. They rose to the occasion deliciously: garlic mustard sauce over thin slices of roast beef, garlic mustard pesto on pork tenderloin crostinis, garlic mustard chutney on wonton-skin ravioli stuffed with tofu and paneer cheese, garlic mustard dip for thick-cut potato chips, and garlic mustard relish on chèvre cheesecake. The 125 attendees clustered around the chefs’ silvery platters, then carried artfully arranged portions of the garlic-mustard creations back to white-linen draped tables.

Would all this culinary artfulness persuade people to cook up some garlic mustard on their own, or at least recognize it when they see it along a path in a public park and yank it out?

“We hope so!” says Terri Johnson, the nature center’s special events manager. “We look forward to the day when garlic mustard is eradicated. Then we’ll hold Pestival as a victory celebration.”

Garlic mustard is just one of 50,000 alien plant and animal species that have arrived in the United States. These invaders flourish in the absence of their native competitors and predators. European settlers brought garlic mustard here for their kitchen gardens. An attractive plant with heart-shaped leaves and tiny white flowers, it outcompetes native plants for light, moisture, nutrients, soil and space. It propagates at a fierce speed, producing thousands of seeds that spread by sticking to animals’ fur.

“If you don’t control it, woods filled with native species can be completely taken over by garlic mustard in five years,” says Sarah Cech, the nature center’s naturalist.

When the nature center first conceived Pestival six years ago—the first one was a simpler event in which the staff prepared a garlic-mustard pesto served with spaghetti for 80 guests—they didn’t realize they were part of a national trend. The United States spends around $120 billion each year to control invasive species, according to Cornell University ecologist David Pimentel. But in the past decade or so, a growing number of people have decided to view the crisis of surging alien populations as an opportunity to expand the American palate. If these species are out of control because they have no natural predators, then why not convince the fiercest predator of all—human beings—to eat them? The motto of these so-called invasivores is, “If you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em.”

Take the Asian carp (please!). Imported from China in 1973 to clean algae from Southern ponds, the carp soon broke from their confines and infested Mississippi River waterways. Gobbling up the phytoplankton that support native species, the carp can grow four feet long and weigh 100 pounds. They continue to swim north and could establish themselves in the Great Lakes, the world’s largest freshwater system, and decimate native fish populations there.

Wildlife managers have tried to prevent Asian carp and other invasive species from reaching the Great Lakes by installing electric underwater fences and, occasionally, poisoning the water. But chefs from New Orleans to Chicago have also tried to put a dent in the population by putting the fish on their menu. Now, a researcher at the Aquaculture Research Center at Kentucky State University is trying to figure out how to harvest and promote carp as a food source. Currently, a few processing plants are converting Asian carp into ingredients for fertilizer or pet food. “That’s a shame, because the meat quality is excellent,” says Siddhartha Disgupta, an associate professor at the center.

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