What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have never been discovered.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
The word invasive is thrown about so easily whenever we humans talk about the fragility of our ecosystems. Though the plants many have labeled “invasive” are able to spread prolifically, it is rare that the ability of the plant to thrive has anything to do with a natural process. Rather our own foolish adherence to a desire to “own” and “control” the land through clear-cutting, removal of topsoil, massive monocultures, application of biocides, etc. leave us with a barren soil that invites those “pioneers” with high tolerances and preferences for disturbed soils.
And how we gawk at those pioneers and throw our labels at them with such vehemence for their impressive tolerances to nitrate contamination, ability to digest pollutants, and those incredible deep tap roots able to seek out nutrients despite a lack of sufficient topsoil. The truly invasive species is not a plant, it is a most obtrusive primate.
Up at the Eco Learning Center, where a number of former ELC folk have gathered to learn from an old, well-established vineyard, talk was underway of removing some autumn olive that was now growing amid the grapes.
Walking past these shrubs, I noticed a diverse grouping of plants, all thriving, and considered for a moment the potential for these shrubs to act as trellises for the grapes. Was the vineyard already trying to show us something?
As it turns out, our prolific friend, autumn olive, introduced from Asia where its berries are harvested for both medicinal and edible purposes, is loves our climate. It grows well in disturbed soils and even fixes nitrogen in the soil. Nitrogen fixers harbor bacteria within their roots that convert nitrogen from the atmosphere to useful nitrogen compounds in the soil. As such, this particular N2-fixer is referred to by some viticulturists as a “plant nurse,” a far friendlier label than invasive.
In the vineyard, the vines are reaching out to the autumn olive for support. The short stature of the shrub makes it an ideal trellis for grapes (and we humans hoping to harvest grapes by hand). In addition, the shrub provides a late-season berry, producing well after the first frosts in Michigan. These berries may be eaten, or prepared in a variety of ways and provide an excellent food source for birds and other wildlife.
So, perhaps the conversation might shift from how do we get rid of the autumn olive stands within the vineyard, to how might these stands prove a valuable resource for all? And perhaps, over time, our own tolerances for the consequences we face for having altered the landscape so abruptly will lend itself to a whole new set of teachings from our plant elders. It is this education that represents the very best of the harvest.
The following is a wine recipe from Jack Keller
AUTUMN OLIVE WINE * 4-5 pounds Autumn olive fruit
* 2 lbs granulated sugar
* 1¼ tsp yeast nutrient
* ¼ tsp tannin
* 1 tsp pectic enzyme.
* 3 qts water
* Lalvin RC212 (Bourgovin) wine yeastPut 2 qts water on to boil. Meanwhile, wash and cull fruit for soundness. Put fruit in nylon straining bag, tie closed, and place in primary container. Bruise fruit by squashing with hands or a piece of hardwood, being careful not to crack seed. Pour boiling water over fruit and cover primary. Combine remaining water with sugar and stir until dissolved–may heat the water to aid in dissolving sugar. Add sugar-water to primary, replace cover and set aside to cool. When room temperature, stir in tannin, yeast & nutrient. Replace cover and set aside for 12 hours. Stir in pectic enzyme and again cover primary and set aside. After 12 hours, add activated yeast and again cover the primary. Stir twice daily until s.g. drops to 1.015 (1-2 weeks). Remove nylon straining bag, squeezing well to extract juice. Allow to settle and rack to secondary and fit airlock. Wait 30 days, then rack, top up and refit airlock. Repeat when wine clears. Allow another 60 days under airlock. Stabilize, sweeten to taste if desired, wait 10 days, and rack into bottles. Age six months before tasting. Improves with age.