Pennsylvanians Are Putting Weeds in Their Cocktails

Educating people about invasive plants that have taken root in their local ecosystem becomes a whole lot more interesting when you infuse those weeds into booze. Call it botanical outreach via intoxication.

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Jan 6 2015, 4:06pm

Photos by the author.

Invasive plants in Pennsylvania are driving people to drink. In a Philadelphia nature center, artists Zya S. Levy and Kaitlin Pomerantz have teamed up to create cocktails from some of the pervasive weeds plaguing botanists and foresters.

"It's botanical outreach via intoxication," Levy says at an event held at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, located on 340 acres of open, mostly forested space within Philadelphia city limits. Like many natural areas on the east coast and around the country, the center struggles with invasive plants—species from other areas that humans introduced intentionally or unintentionally that have thrived, often crowding out local vegetation.

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The artists mix fresh cocktails made from invasive plants.

Among the troublemakers are brambles like multi-flora rose and Japanese barberry that shoot up in clearings and disturbed areas. Others like oriental bittersweet, mile-a-minute, wisteria, Japanese stiltgrass, and bush honeysuckle propagate through field and understory, beneath the forest canopy.

"We want people thinking about how they got here, what their function is in the ecosystem and what it would mean to remove them," says Pomerantz. To that end, she and Levy brought their We the Weeds outreach project to the Schuylkill Center's environmental art program as a way to combine restoration, preservation, and art, and to explore the use of problematic plants for beneficial uses.

'Invasive plants are a response to our way of living. They're not bad plants that marched across the country to get us.'

The artists encouraged visitors to participate in a project weaving invasive vines together on a loom, and discuss the challenges and implications of shifting vegetation patterns. The cocktails were key to the conversation. "You can tell people about invasive plants, but without a sensible, tactile experience there's a layer of separation," Levy says. "Who doesn't love to enjoy a fine drink?"

She offers two: The Native and the Foreigner. The Native is a pinkish salmon color with a sweet flavor and hints of sour. It's made of vodka and infused with hawthorn berry and staghorn sumac fruit, both of which grow naturally in the northeastern United States. Their habit of aggressively taking over disturbed areas qualifies them as invasive plants, so they made the cut for the cocktail party. The sumac fruit is particularly interesting: red and conical, covered in tiny hairs that provide a citrusy taste.

The Foreigner is herby and green, with some spice to it. The dominant ingredient, besides bourbon, is the perilla leaf, a member of the mint family widely used in East Asia for food and medicine. It became popular in American gardens and then escaped cultivation to take root in the wild. If you rub a perilla leaf, an earthy odor emerges, and that shows up in the drink.

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Foraged ingredients for invasive intoxication.

Pomerantz says she was inspired by walking around Philadelphia identifying plants, so she started leading botanical tours. She teamed up with Levy, who travels the country and collects tasty plants as part of her day job as a field botanist with the USDA Forest Service. Levy started making simple tinctures and the botanical cocktail idea snowballed from there. "I started collecting jars of flavors," she says. "The process of gathering materials directly from the Earth seemed good."

One of their goals is to move away from the simplified "good plant-bad plant" dichotomy that frames most discussion around invasive species. "The conversation is dominated by doomsday sensationalism," Levy says. "Invasive plants are a response to our way of living. They're not bad plants that marched across the country to get us."

That's not to turn a blind eye to the harm that invasives can inflict on local ecosystems. When they enter a habitat that hasn't evolved natural predators and protections, they can overrun the area and push out less hardy species, destroying biological diversity and disrupting successional processes in disturbed forest lands. The Schuylkill Center does specifically target invasives for removal in certain sites, but to completely irradiate them from the nature center—let alone larger swaths of forest around the country—is a Sisyphean task, absurd to contemplate. Many species spread quickly and resiliently with deep underground root networks, and birds and wind help by carrying their seeds far and wide. The reason they take so well to their new environments, after all, is because they are well-suited to thrive in the particular circumstances. Regardless of our efforts and intentions, the reality is that many non-native and invasive plants are here to stay.

Kudzu is purported to treat hangovers and alcoholism—a good antidote for those who overindulged in the sumac cocktail.

So why not make use of them? Mixed with spirits, preferably. Not every invasive plant can go in a cocktail, of course, since many taste disgusting and some are poisonous. But among other uses, invasive plants can be put to are as food, medicine, art, and dyes. Wineberries, for example, are tasty on their own or baked into pies and muffins. The berries on Japanese barberry, on the other hand, are not delicious, but they and other parts of the plant are used in medicines to treat inflammation, congestion, ulcers and other ailments.

And the most famous of all invasive plants in the United States, kudzu, otherwise known as the vine that ate the South, is used as a starch in Asia as well as a component of jellies and teas. Best of all, it is actually part of remedies that purport to treat hangovers and alcoholism—a good antidote for those who overindulged in the sumac cocktail.

The artists leave us with words to contemplate over the next invasive-derived drink. Is there ever one moment when we can judge that all the plants in the world are growing in their correct place? "It's arrogant of humans," Levy says, "to think we know what plants should go where."