10 Invasive Species You Can Eat (and Why You Should)

Side profile of red lionfish, an invasive species

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As an increasing number of invasive plants and animals travel around the world, more and more people are turning to a somewhat obvious solution to curb the spread: eating them. This growing movement of invasivores – people who consume edible invasive species, encourages communities to do something humans have had a knack for in the past – eating a species to extinction.

The arrival of invasive plants and animals to an ecosystem can cause irreversible changes, including the displacement of native plants and animals, as well as the alteration of nutrient cycling and other ecosystem functions. Nonnative species are considered one of the greatest threats to imperiled species in the United States, second only to habitat loss. Many invasives thrive because they lack natural controls found in their native environments, such as insect predators, plant pathogens, fungi, and competing plants and animals.

With the potential harm of certain invasive species well established, some scientists have enlisted the help of chefs and advocates to promote eating them as a way to curb the spread. But take care when embracing the “if you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em” mantra, as many invasive species have state-specific laws prohibiting their live transport. Local wildlife and fisheries agents will have more specific information for different regions.

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Asian Carp

jumping silver Asian carp
Invasive silver carp breaching the river's surface.

Benjamin Lowy / Getty Images

There are several invasive species of Asian carp in the Mississippi River, including black carp, silver carp, and bighead carp. Aquaculture farmers brought the latter two species to the United States in the 1970s, utilizing their plankton-eating capabilities to clean catfish ponds. After multiple releases during river floods, the fish have established a major presence in parts of the river, clogging the nets of fishermen searching for more lucrative species and potentially threatening food sources for native fish. Silver carp are also known for their ability to jump out of the water, in the past injuring boaters. Silver carp is a firm white fish, similar to cod in flavor, that people in Asia, where the fish is native, routinely consume. It’s not easy to find Asian carp for sale in the United States, but one company based in Illinois does ship it frozen. If you live near the Mississippi, connecting with a local fisherman is the easiest way to find it. 

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Mother and child nutria pair

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Nutria, native to Argentina, arrived in the United States to be harvested for pelts as part of our booming early 20th-century fur trade. The semi-aquatic rodents may have been deliberately released; they also escaped during hurricanes and floods. Initially established primarily in Louisiana, nutria are also currently present in California and Maryland. Because the herbivores damage agricultural crops and aquatic vegetation, control programs in some states offer a bounty for those who want to hunt nutria, with Louisiana paying out around $3,000,000 each year at $6 per nutria. Many who participate in the program trap the animal, utilizing both its fur and meat. The pelt is similar to beaver, and the meat most closely resembles wild hare. One popular method of preparation is a fricassee, similar to this recipe from Emeril.

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lionfish ceviche
Lionfish ceviche.

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Native to Indonesia, boaters first observed lionfish off the coast of Florida in the 1980s. The vertebrate predator has now spread throughout the entire Caribbean region to varying degrees via larval dispersal in ocean currents and threatens Atlantic coral reef fish. As a result, various efforts have been launched to attempt to control the fish’s population growth, including the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary licensing hundreds of divers to spear fish for lionfish in their nature reserve.

Chefs are also playing their part, incorporating lionfish into a variety of dishes including stew, tacos, and hors d'oeuvres.

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American Bullfrogs

American Bullfrog

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The native range of American bullfrogs covers much of eastern North America, roughly from the Mississippi River and Great Lakes east to the Atlantic Ocean and from the State of Florida north into southern Canada. The animals now occupy much of the western United States as well as parts of western Canada and central and south America. Among the most successful vertebrate invaders, bullfrogs minimize other indigenous species via competition, predation, and habitat displacement.

The good news is they are edible, and all you need to catch them is a fishing pole (and fishing license). They're commonly served fried, and Utah's Division of Wildlife Resources has instructions on how to catch and cook them.

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Wild Boar

Wild Boar

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Wild boar have been present in the United States for around 500 years, but recent and alarming increases in their distribution and population size concern biologists and conservationists. A combination of many factors, including pigs escaping from farms and hunting reserves, supplemental feeding of populations for hunting, as well as illegal transport and release of feral swine to new areas in order to create local, easily accessible hunting opportunities, has likely led to their recent population increase. Native to Eurasia and North Africa, wild boars now occupy almost all of Texas and Florida, as well as coastal Louisiana and a large swath of California, destructively rutting through landscapes and altering vegetation, soil composition, and water quality.

Hunters enjoy the thrill of catching wild boar, with their size and strength compared to other game, and often take the meat to be processed or field dress it themselves. Only experienced hunters should catch and prepare their own boar, according to local laws, and the meat should always be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit, as any wild game can carry pathogens and disease. 

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Red Swamp Crayfish

single red Crawfish on rock gravel
zhengzaishuru / Getty Images

Native to the Gulf coast, red swamp crayfish, known as crawfish to southerners, have made their way all over the world, establishing populations in China, Africa, and more than two dozen US states, most recently Michigan. Researchers sounded the alarm in 2013, after fishermen found several discarded crawfish carcasses likely used for bait. The state banned live red swamp crayfish in 2015, but nonetheless discovered thousands at two separate locations in 2017. Wisconsin and Oregon have also seen infestations. 

Some residents have questioned the millions spent on eradication efforts - arguing that crayfish are delicious and should be allowed to expand and used as a food source. Scientists counter that their destructive habits threaten native species and lucrative fishing industries, and encourage people to report any live sightings and only purchase peeled and frozen crawfish tails harvested from their native habitat.

invasive plants you can eat hovering above bowl

Treehugger / Caitlin Rogers

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Garlic Mustard

An orange-tip butterfly nectaring on a garlic mustard flower
An orange-tip butterfly nectaring on a garlic mustard flower.

Sandra Stanbridge / Getty Images

An invasive biennial, garlic mustard arrived in the United States via European immigrants in the mid-19th century, and has now established itself throughout forests across the country, displacing indigenous understory flora. Herbivores like deer and woodchuck will eat the plant, but not in a quantity sufficient to control its spread. That said, it’s easy to forage for (the plant's leaves gives off a garlic odor) and it adds a slightly bitter and garlicky zing that’s been compared to horseradish when used as a replacement for other herbs in a pesto or aioli, and can also be added to salads or roasted.

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kudzu taking over forest
Kudzu overtaking the landscape.

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Introduced to the United States from Japan at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, kudzu reached the height of its popularity in the southeast in the 1930s, where it was widely planted as a cover crop to control erosion and replenish depleted soils. The combination of the region’s climate and lack of biodiversity after years of monoculture agriculture presented a prime opportunity for the vine, which spread rapidly across fields and then into hollers and over trees, establishing deep roots and becoming a ubiquitous site on roadsides across the deep south.

Rural people in the region have been finding uses for the plant for decades, using the vines to weave baskets, allowing animals to graze on it, as well as cooking both the leaves and flowers. Raw kudzu can be used like spinach, and the flowers, only available for foraging in August and September, can be turned into a jam similar to grapes in flavor. Take care to avoid eating kudzu, or any invasive plant, directly adjacent to highways, or that might have been sprayed with pesticides or exposed to other pollutants. 

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Water Hyacinth

Water Hyacinth in Florida
Water hyacinth in Florida.

Roger Tidman / Getty Images

Water hyacinth has been called one of the world’s most invasive plants, and can alter water clarity and decrease phytoplankton production in the waters it invades. Native to South America, the plant is now established in more than 50 countries, and is particularly pervasive in the southeastern United States, where it clogs waterways with dense, interlocking mats of vines.

Some intrepid southerners have started eating the plant, noting that the flavor is mild and it can be steamed or sautéed like any other green. The bulbs of the plant can also be eaten, roasted or even deep fried.

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Whiteway / Getty Images

Native to Europe and eastern Asia, mugwort arrived in the United States with European colonists and is most commonly seen along the east coast. Historically used as a medicinal herb, the perennial weed disturbs plant nurseries and urban landscapes, propagating easily and entering new areas. Following the introduction of invasive mugwort, the diversity of native flora has declined. Mugwort leaves have a sage-like flavor suitable in a variety of recipes. Martha Stewart puts it in soup. The plant is available seasonally at some farmer’s markets within its range of distribution. 

View Article Sources
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