Turning Invasive Weeds Into Income

Reader Contribution by Pam Sherman
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Kudzu – Wikipedia Commons

They come in through hay, even certified weed-free hay. They come in through wind, tire treads, boat underbellies, as stickers on socks and coats. Abundant weeds, invasive weeds are all over the globe and the farm. Researchers find that in this age of high CO2 emissions, they grow and spread faster than non-invasive plants. Culturally, we are taught to view them as usurping space for crop and pasture grass. Some do.

And yet many have uses as crops themselves. In this post, we’ll take a look at how some businesses use some of the most persistent weeds as raw material—and have for years. We’ll look at a variety of herbal, beekeeping, weed control, wood-working, and paper-making endeavors, starting with food-based companies.

Chef Peter Becker, via his German company, Newtrition Ink, manages the spread of Japanese knotweed, which is highly invasive, nutritious, and medicinal, by making and selling jam and relish. He calls this community conservation work Bionic Knotweed Control. He does the same with the invasive Himalayan Balsam.

Chicory is a major international commercial food plant. France, Belgium, and the Netherlands produce the most. It is sold as a coffee substitute and is used by chefs in many recipes. Both small-scale local producers and large multinational corporations sell chicory and its derivative, Inulin. Nestle’ grows it in South Africa. Other big companies include it as a major component in coffee substitute products. An internet search for “chicory coffee company” yields many small roasters who proudly roast and sell the ground root intermixed with coffee, dandelion root, or by itself. There is even a guide book to starting your own chicory root business.

The Agricultural Marketing Resource Center at Iowa State is looking at Chufa, or Yellow Nutsedge. They tell us: “The small round tubers found along the roots have a slightly almond flavor and are eaten raw, cooked or made into the traditional drink called horchata. In Spain and Mexico, horchata is served in health spas, pubs and restaurants… The plant’s…oil has a mild, pleasant flavor, and as a food oil, is considered to be similar, but of superior quality, to olive oil. Industrial applications for the oil include high-value applications for cosmetics (perfume carriers) and instrument lubricants. There is increasing interest in chufa for health food and similar products. Due to Spanish cultural influences, chufa “nuts” also are available in markets and as processed products in most of Mexico…The United Nations considers chufa an “under-researched” food plant. ” Hogs fattened on chufa are said to produce delicious meat. Lack of means for mechanical harvesting holds back chufa as a large-scale, commercial crop, but small farms and gardeners have room to be creative.

Kudzu

Kudzu, an astonishingly prolific vine, is originally from Japan, where it is controlled by climate, local predators, and harvesting. In the U.S. it’s known colloquially as “the plant that ate the South.” The Mother Earth News book excerpt by William Shurtlieff and Akiko Ayagi notes:

“It has long been used for erosion control, for livestock fodder, as a honey source, and as an ornamental vine. Moreover, its leguminous roots host nitrogen-fixing bacteria which enrich the soil by providing a free and continuous supply of natural fertilizer… the Japanese practice a kind of agricultural judo on kudzu, turning its overflowing energy to their advantage… the kudzu vine offers its leaves, shoots, flowers, seeds, and roots for use in a variety of preparations such as tempura, pressed salads, sautéed vegetables, or pickles.” The end of the article features tempting Japanese recipes and the internet features a plethora of general recipes for almost every part of the plant. It’s a staple in Japanese cooking and can be enjoyed in many Japanese restaurants.

The article continues: “Kudzu powder is now being used in lieu of lower-quality cooking starches and is featured in some of America’s finest natural food restaurants” and health food stores. In addition, “Kudzu Root Tea and Kudzu Creams are being used by naturopaths and appearing in their books on healing…”

Japanese Knotweed Courtesy Pixabay & Wikimedia

Invasive Weeds

Lovers of East Asian food will also recognize burdock as a culinary staple in those cuisines. It’s enjoyed in Japanese restaurants and sold in grocery and health food stores. Dandelions are sold wholesale as a fresh greens crop gracing salads in upscale restaurants and is also sold in health food stores.

Katrina Blair of Durango, CO features unique culinary creations based on invasive and other weeds in her long-running Local Wild Life Cafe’. They are made with thistles, purslane, wild mustards, lambsquarters, dock, dandelion, amaranth [pigweed], purslane, plantain and others; recipes for these abound in her book The Wild Wisdom of Weeds.

Cornell University’s Climate Change Garden announced last year that it “ removed wheat from the project beds and replaced them with weeds common in gardens and agricultural settings.” The weeds, lambsquarters and pigweed, are projected to be future crops, as they acclimate better to heat and drought than cool-season crops. They are grown for greens–used like spinach—and also for seed for flour.

Herbal-based businesses sell a number of invasive and other weeds with substantiated medical properties. You can buy them at natural food stores, in herbal apothecaries, pharmacies, in big box stores, and online. Japanese knotweed is an important part of Stephen Buhner‘s Chinese herbal formula for Lyme’s disease, as well as other conditions. Despised in the field, revered in the apothecary and naturopath’s office, mullein, burdock, bouncingbet, teasel, quackgrass, mallow, St. Johnswort, plantain, dandelions, stinging nettles, purslane, goatshead (tribulus terrestris) are just a few of many more examples.

Beekeeping and honey-selling businesses find that bees love the invasive bindweed, scentless and mayweed chamomile, spotted and other knapweeds, yellow starthistle, houndstongue, cutleaf and common teasels, dame’s rocket/mother-of-the-evening, orange hawkweed, yellow toadflax, purple loosestrife, tamarisk, tansy, Canada and other thistles, and many others, so you can feed your bees and maintain your business on non-herbicided properties even while they transition to less invasive pollinator plants. Kathy Voth has a business teaching cows to eat invasive and other weeds.

Russian Olives Wikimedia Commons Una Smith

Russian Olive Trees

Russian olive trees can be carved into beautiful bowls sawn into lumber in mills large and small. River Bottom Restoration Furniture is a hand-milled, hand-crafted business based on Russian Olive wood. Nancy Reilly built her hand-crafted furniture business based on bittersweet. Artists and craftspeople are making paper from invasive plants. Papermaking teacher Louise Barteau makes hers from Japanese knotweed, phragmites, Amur peppervine, oriental bittersweet, Japanese honeysuckle, hostas, daylilies, and Japanese stiltgrass. Even the U.S. Forest Service is getting into it!

Many invasive trees, shrubs, grasses, forbs offer free resources for part-time to full-time home-based or town-based entrepreneurs—more than most people would believe. All it takes is a desire for independence, a penchant to look outside the box, a plan, and being absolutely certain that the plants you are harvesting have not been herbicided and are from a safe place. Do your due diligence on this; it’s crucial. And know your plants. Read all your can about them, talk to all kinds of people who’ve had experience with them.

In putting these resources to good use, we are making room for managed resources that we don’t want to lose to these exuberant plants. Please let us know of invasive plant businesses you are enthusiastic about and let us know what you’re planning for your own!

Pamela Sherman has been foraging for over 30 years and researching weed history, botany, uses, and mitigation for over twenty, for publication and for assisting her community. She is passionate about harvesting and using invasive plants safely and creatively.


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