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Blairsville's Knotweed Festival offers novel uses for pesky plant

| Friday, Aug. 8, 2014, 1:57 p.m.
From left, Virginia Christman samples a glass of knotweed iced tea and Leann Chaney holds a bar of knotweed soap at Christman's Crumpets tea shop in Blairsville.
Bruce Siskawicz | Trib Total Media
From left, Virginia Christman samples a glass of knotweed iced tea and Leann Chaney holds a bar of knotweed soap at Christman's Crumpets tea shop in Blairsville.
Leann Chaney cuts a bar of her knotweed soap while surrounded by some of the ingredients used in the unique product.
Bruce Siskawicz | Trib Total Media
Leann Chaney cuts a bar of her knotweed soap while surrounded by some of the ingredients used in the unique product.
The knotweed plant is depicted in this painting on slate by Karen Keck of Founder's Gallery in Blairsville.
Submitted
The knotweed plant is depicted in this painting on slate by Karen Keck of Founder's Gallery in Blairsville.

Japanese knotweed is believed to have been introduced in the United States as an ornamental plant in the 1800s, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Since then, it has developed a reputation as one of the worst invasive plants, crumbling foundations, crowding out native plants and even obscuring flood control.

Last year, in an effort to launch a community-oriented festival in Blairsville, local planners came up with the idea for the Knotweed Festival — a tongue-in-cheek nod to the invasive species that grows in abundance near the Conemaugh River in town.

Festival planners this year are taking the knotweed connection a step further, finding ways to make use of the plant.

This year's second annual event, set for 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Aug. 16, will feature a Knotweed Knovelties booth, showcasing foods and other items made from various parts of the unpopular plant.

“I thought we'd get something in there directly related to the invasive plant,” said Carol Persichetti, who is chairing the festival and is also a member of the Blairsville Community Development Authority board.

Among the Knotweed Knovelties offered at the booth will be handmade soap with extracts derived from the knotweed plant.

The soap is made by BCDA Executive Director Leann Chaney, who also owns Iron Alley Soapworks and has sold other varieties of soap at Crumpets tea shop in Blairsville and at the town's weekly farmers market.

Chaney, who has been making soap for nearly two years, was inspired by last summer's festival to create soap incorporating knotweed as an ingredient.

She picked some knotweed roots last fall, dried them and made some test bars with them in February. She's since sold some bars individually but will be publicly displaying the product for the first time at this year's Knotweed Festival.

“It's a unique soap with a rich lather,” Chaney writes on the label.

She uses a lemongrass essential oil to give the soap a light, fresh aroma.

Chaney has found that the knotweed plant has some skin-healing properties, adding that she's had people tell her it tames flare-ups from insect bites and can relieve the itch of poison ivy.

“I still hate the plant,” Chaney said. “I hate that's it's overtaking the river. If we could get rid of it, I would. But if we can't, we might as well find some good, positive uses of it.”

Chaney makes sure to harvest the knotweed sprouts when they're tender.,

“When it gets thick like a bamboo shoot, it's too stringy and tough to use. So you want to look for spring growth, new growth” after it's just been cut, she said.

Chaney finely dices the sprouts and adds them to her soap mixture of coconut, palm and olive oils with a lye solution.

She then takes the roots of the knotweed plants, dries them and grinds them into a powder, which gives the soap a deep purple marbling.

Various exfoliants and botanicals can also be added at this point, followed by the later addition of essential oils. The concoction is then poured into a large rectangular mold and left to cure for six weeks before being cut.

The batch she currently has curing will be ready a week after the festival, but she's planning on packaging it with a note saying it won't be ready for use until about Aug. 23.

“You can use it before then, it just will be a harder, longer-lasting bar if you give it that one more week of curing time,” she said.

Crumpets owner Virginia Christman also will be participating in the Knotweed Knovelties booth, serving iced tea made with the invasive plant.

She uses the tender shoots from the plant, boiling them for about 20 minutes to make the tea.

Christman gave the tea a recent try and found it had a light, sweet flavor. She also tried blending it with a strawberry herbal tea to give it a more fruity flavor.

The iced teas she'll be selling for the festival likely will be blended with other flavors, she noted.

“I'm just not sure how appealing it would be on its own, so it will be blended,” she said. “If it gets really tart I get concerned about how much sugar you have to put in it to balance it out. Then you're kind of off-setting the good effects.”

Cindy Rogers of Indiana, board president of Evergreen Conservancy, also will offer a knotweed edible at the Blairsville festival.

She has hosted programs for Indiana County's Friends of the Parks for years, one of them being a Mother's Day tea where she demonstrates how local wildflowers and plants were used medicinally and for food.

“Knotweed jam was something I'd used for those programs,” she said. “I've been making it many years,” along with dandelion muffins, pine needle tea, staghorn sumac lemonade and violet candy.

Rogers found the recipe for the jam in the book “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” by the late noted naturalist Euell Gibbons.

The best time to harvest knotweed for use in the jams is at the beginning of the growing season, when the plants are less than two feet high.

Some people peel the stems before using them. Rogers said her preferred method is to remove the leaves and then simmer the plants before putting them through a food grinder. That removes most of the stringiness of the plant, and the result is what she uses to make the jams.

She describes the knotweed flavor as sour, similar to rhubarb. She usually makes two kinds of jam — plain knotweed and one mixed with strawberry — both of which she'll have on hand to purchase at the festival.

She has received mixed reviews of the jam. “But most people like it,” she said.

Usually, she'll pour the jam over a block of cream cheese and serve it with crackers, but she noted its tartness complements meats, too.

Josie Ross of Blairsville also will be serving up edible knotweed — in the form of muffins.

She has made and served them in the past, and they've been a hit, she noted: “They were really excellent.”

Ross said knotweed should be harvested in April if it's to be used in cooking, but the off-and-on freezes this past spring didn't make for a good crop.

In preparation for the festival, Ross recently cut some from the wild, taken just as it began to grow back after being cut down for maintenance. The shoots that she uses can be very woody, she said, “So I'm not sure they're going to be as good as they were in the spring, but we'll give it a try and see what happens.”

She's had positive results when mixing diced apples with the knotweed. She hopes to make 100 muffins to sell for a dollar each at the festival, with the proceeds going to the BCDA for its spring flower planting.

“The apples gives the muffins a little more texture,” she said, noting that she “just experiments and sees what works.”

She cooks the knotweed shoots, purées them and adds a little sugar and water, cooking that concoction down before adding it into her homemade muffin mix.

She looked up recipes for the muffins online and found that knotweed has a tartness similar to that of rhubarb, and can be substituted for rhubarb in most any recipe.

“It has an interesting flavor,” she said. “It's just different enough that you know it's not something you've ever tasted before. But it's good.”

There will also be T-shirts and aprons in the Knovelties booth, made by Joy Fairbanks with variations of knotweed painted on them. Fairbanks is also coordinating this year's art activity around the plant, which will involve making printed knotweed canvas bags. The activity will be offered from 1 to 5 p.m.

Karen Keck of Founders Gallery in Blairsville will sell knotweed patterns painted on slate.

Also new to the festival this year will be a parade. Set to begin at 10:30 a.m., it will travel down Market Street to the town bandstand, where the high school marching band will play a few numbers.

The Diamond Dolls twirling group also will take part in the parade and will put on a performance afterward.

Several new demonstrations also have been planned this year, including a K-9 search-and-rescue demonstration, bee and honey demonstrations and geocaching. There will also be a booth exhibiting butterflies and moths.

Persichetti was happy to have Boy Scout Jon Graff of Blairsville focus his Eagle Scout project around the Blairsville Riverfront Trail trailhead. Graff's plan to build a small pavilion with a picnic table at the trailhead is reaching its final approval stage. He likely will be working on the project during the festival, allowing festival-goers to catch a glimpse of what's to come.

Persichetti noted that local Scout troops already have placed benches along the trail.

Persichetti said she heard many positive comments about the festival from last year's vendors, which encouraged planners to hold the event again this year.

“So far, people have been really receptive about having it a second year,” she said. “We have more vendors, more food vendors. People are encouraging us to continue because participation has increased.”

She said the event is community-oriented, highlighting area businesses and showcasing the riverfront and trail areas of town.

“So people can see what's happening in our little town of Blairsville,” she said.

In keeping with the event's community spirit, the festival will feature a booth offering bake sale items, with proceeds benefiting two downtown Blairsville eating establishments — Sharon's Restaurant and Lounge and Chaek's Window — that were destroyed in a July 30 fire.

Gina DelFavero is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2915 or gdelfavero@tribweb.com.

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