Bloomin' Foreigners

Written and photographed: Green Jacker

Conservation biologists are quite right to warn about the dangers of invasive alien species. Many of us know all too well the problems presented by plants such as Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) and Himalayan balsam
(Impatiensglandulifera), which can rapidly take over large swathes of land and can be expensive to control. Whilst Japanese knotweed is actually edible, tasting like rhubarb, a piece the size of a postage stamp is enough to start a whole new colony that can make it harder to sell your house – I’d stick to actual rhubarb if I were you. But not all invasive species are problematic.
A few years ago, there was panic about the New Zealand flatworm (Arthurdendyus triangulatus) when it was discovered that they eat our own beloved earthworm (Lumbricus terrestris). Some predicted Armageddon for our gardeners’ friend. Instead,
as is often the case in nature, an equilibrium has been reached. Other invasive species turn out not only to be ecologically benign, but actively beneficial to native eco-systems — some aliens really do come in peace.
In the US researchers studied an area of Pennsylvania known as Happy Valley, where it was widely believed that non-native honeysuckle (Lonicera) was a real problem for local eco-systems. What they actually found was that birdlife was thriving in the area thanks to the abundance of honeysuckle berries, with three to four times more fruit-eating birds than before. The new abundance of birds also helped to disperse the seeds of native plants like nightshade.
Human activity has blurred the once well-defined lines of fixed regional habitat. Global transport systems now move species at an alarming rate. Farming, industrialisation and city-building are destroying ancient ecosystems across the planet and climate change is forcing nature’s hand with rising temperatures and ever-more chaotic weather patterns and seasons.
I have spent my life on the frontline of ecological resistance and for much of that time the focus has been on preserving things as they once were. Whilst I still believe this work to be a necessity in many cases, I am also beginning to understand that we must also encourage new forms of ecological equilibrium in a much-changed and ever-changing world.
In terms of human diet, we would simply not enjoy the same level of nutrition and food security if we had not moved edible species around the globe. Very little in our diet is indigenous to where we live — although we are conversely guilty of ignoring some perfectly edible native delicacies. Doncaster could
be a wonderful testing ground for experimenting with new food crops. Our de-industrialised region is rife with disused land and buildings to experiment with new crops without risk to sensitive eco-systems.
Paul Stabeler of the new Good Food Doncaster anti-food poverty partnership, tells me that the Soil Association have described Doncaster as one of the most interesting and diverse soil maps in the UK. At Bentley Urban Farm we have already been experimenting with exotic crops like Yacón (Smallanthus sonchifolius). Also known as a ‘ground pear’, this South American relative of the sunflower produces tubers resembling King Edward potatoes, but which taste like watermelon. They’re so delicious and refreshing I pretty much ate our first crop myself.
What if we identified other species from around the world which were perfect for our different soil types? What if Doncaster were to become known for growing niche foods? And what if we also measured the effect of each new crop on local wildlife so that, in the future, we plant species which we know will have a positive effect?
We have an opportunity here for a new way of farming that embraces change while encouraging ecological harmony — all you need to get involved is a spade!
If you want to join the food growing revolution (or even the growing food revolution), then come and volunteer with the Greenjacker down on Bentley Urban Farm… 07422 966115

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