How to Find and Identify Japanese Knotweed: A Wild Spring Edible

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How to Find and Identify Japanese Knotweed

You may never have heard of Japanese knotweed, but there’s a good chance it’s growing right in your backyard. It’s actually an invasive plant from Japan (go figure!) and it’s become so widespread that most people consider it a pesky weed. But as wild spring edible enthusiasts like to say, “It’s KNOT as a weed!”  It is in fact, edible. Identifying Japanese knotweed is easier than you may think. It’s also quite easy to find and cook too!

My Favorite Thing About Japanese Knotweed

But first, let me tell you my absolute favorite thing about Japanese knotweed.  And that is, unlike other wild spring edibles, you really don’t have to worry about killing yourself!

You can eat it raw and there’s really not a poisonous relative that you can mistake it for (at least not one that I’m aware of).

It has a tart, sweet flavor sorta like rhubarb.  Some people say it has a faint hint of lemon as well.  It makes a great little snack when you’re out hiking in the woods with your dog.

But you can also cook it and eat it as a side vegetable or add it to other dishes.

How to Find Japanese Knotweed

Japanese knotweed grows in disturbed soil, along the edges of fields, and in wet areas, especially along streams and riverbanks…

identifying japanese knotweed along stream beds

And roadside and trailside…

When it first appears in late April, the shoots very much look like asparagus.  But when it starts growing, it grows FAST.  So NOW is the time to get it!  By mid-May, at least here in the northeast, its tender stalks will grow into hardy, bamboo-esque woody ones that grow well over ten feet tall.  The pics above are beyond the point at which you want to harvest it.

Here’s a pic with Lipton to give you an idea of a good height at which to pick it.  Some of those smaller ones off to the left are just about right, about one to two feet. Even shorter stalks than that would be good.  Probably the minimum height to pick would be around six inches.

At that height, the stalks are very supple.  Just pinch them at the base and they will easily snap in half. Once they get beyond three feet or so they start to become more fibrous and are no longer tender and edible.

As you can see,  Lipton agrees that it tastes quite good…

Another good way to find and identify Japanese knotweed is to look for last year’s dead stalks which very much resemble bamboo.  The new spring shoots will often emerge right at the base of last year’s growth…

identifying japanese knotweed by dead stalks from the previous year

Same idea here but check out how tall those dead stalks are.  They’re probably around twelve feet high.

clumps of old and new stalks

And if you have a dog, they’ll love chewing on those stalks!

Identifying Japanese Knotweed

So here’s some freshly picked Japanese Knotweed…

identifying japanese knotweed at home

As you can see, it really does look like asparagus.

And here’s a close-up of the stalks so you can see a few more defining features.  The first is the reddish maroon specks that cover the stalk…

coloring on the stalks

And the second is that, unlike asparagus, the stalk is actually hollow…

hollow stalks

How to Prepare Japanese Knotweed

Oh and speaking of asparagus, though Japanese knotweed looks like asparagus, you should know that it doesn’t really taste like asparagus.

But you can prepare it very much like asparagus though know it’ll cook a lot faster.

Trim the leaves that branch off the nodes. A light saute of about three to five minutes is all you need or you can boil or steam it for a few minutes as well. Top it with some butter and salt.

Personally, I think it’s a tad on the tart side to eat as a side vegetable, sort of like fiddleheads. But I think it complements other things well.  I’ll add it to soups, chop it up with some scrambled eggs or saute it with some potatoes for breakfast. It also makes a great addition to salads.

And, unlike asparagus, it’s FREE!  And you can’t beat that.

So the next time you’re out walking the dog, walking in the woods, or maybe just walking out your back door, look around for some Japanese knotweed.

Because now you know… it’s KNOT a weed.

How to Find and Identify Other Wild Spring Edibles

Of course, learning how to find and identify Japanese knotweed is just the tip of the iceberg.  There are hundreds more, many of which grow right in your backyard like dandelions and stinging nettles.  However, many of them are not easy to identify.   And unlike Japanese knotweed, many of them have poisonous relatives!

So it’s good to learn from someone with experience initially.

Wild edible walks are a great way to learn from experienced guides and they’re very popular this time of year.  Just google “wild edible walk” along with your town or county and you’ll probably find a few.

Once you gain some experience, you want to have some handy resources as well.

Here are a few recommended guides to help you out:

The Forager’s Harvest by Samuel Thayer.

Click here to check it out on Amazon.

Edible Wild Plants book

Backyard Foraging by Ellen Zachos (highly recommended if you’re new to foraging).

Click here to check it out on Amazon.

Backyard Foraging book

And of course, there’s that thing called the internet too!   I called on some of my fellow food bloggers to share their best wild edible posts.  You’ll see that many include recipes as well.

I’ll kick things off with my own post (and one of my all-time favorites).

How to Find, Identify, and Cook Fiddleheads by Yours Truly

Ramps and Wild Leeks by Learning and Yearning

What to Do with Stinging Nettles by And Here We Are

15 Edible Plants to Forage in Your Own Backyard by And Here We Are

Perfectly Purslane by Attainable Sustainable

How to Use Dandelion by Small Footprint Family

Wild Garlic and Cashew Pesto by Keeper of the Kitchen

Wild Violet Muffins by Farm Fresh Eats

How to Find and Identify Japanese Knotweed pin
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About the Author

Craig Fear is the creator of Fearless Eating and the author of three books, The 30-Day Heartburn Solution, Fearless Broths and Soups and The Thai Soup Secret. After years helping clients with digestive issues, Craig decided to pursue writing full-time. He intends to write many more books on broths and soups from around the world! Click here to learn more about Craig.

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