Pass the Garlic Mustard, Please

So, there I was Saturday, crouching in the woods under the oldest oak on our land, squinting hard at the ground so I wouldn’t miss a single tiny white flower cluster, pulling them out by the root, biting off the top half of each plant and eating it on the spot.

“Greens are good for you,” I reminded myself, chewing up the tender baby plants and savoring their peppery watercress-like piquancy and garlic undertones.  But I wasn’t eating them for their flavor.  I was eating them because the damn deer won’t.

Of all the greedy little bullies elbowing their way into the landscape and hogging resources that the native plants have been nicely sharing for centuries, garlic mustard Alliaria petiolata is one I haven’t had to contend with on my land — until last year, when legging it up Lloyd’s Lane, I spotted something new under that oak.  It was already about a foot and a half tall and starting to shade out everything else that had been growing there. My husband and I began yanking it out in a panic.  Next time we brought a plastic bag and began filling it, and filling it and filling it.  Every time we came back by, it was as if we hadn’t picked it before.garlic-mustard

This menace was introduced from Europe, where it is a well-behaved citizen with native insects and fungi that keep it in line.  But when it hit the Atlantic coast, in the 1860s, it acted just like its human counterparts did – deciding it liked the look of the place and failing to notice that there was a plant community already happily in residence.  Colonization of the New World was on.  The Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health has mapped its scary progress.

Garlic mustard is well adapted for invasion.  It can grow almost anywhere, but really kicks into high gear in shady locations.  It runs along roadsides, rushes stream banks, steamrolls forest understories and (as I am now painfully aware) happily hits on trail edges.

Like any effective invader, it is armed.  Garlic mustard secretes compounds into the soil that cripple native plants by messing with their ability to benefit from the mychorizzal fungi they depend on.  Researchers don’t yet know how long those secretions will keep acting in the soil.  Thanks, garlic mustard, for the gift that goes on giving.

They are vigorous.  They can photosynthesize any day they get sun that is above 32 degrees.  They are prolific.  Those pretty little white flowers produce pods full of seeds – thousands per square meter that can lie there waiting to sprout for five years or more.  And when you pull a plant out, if you miss a root fragment – that buried stub can grow a new plant.

This photo was thankfully NOT taken on my land, and I hope it never will be.

This photo was thankfully NOT taken on my land, and never will be -- not while I can chew and swallow!

Don’t’ freak!  Ecologists all over the country are working on strategies to combat them before they turn every lovely forest floor into a monoculture.  There are any number of great sites, but LEAST WANTED,  by the Plant Conservation Alliance  is very good.

Another source assures us we can block its spread if we focus on the satellite populations which may have arrived on human boots or deer hooves.  That is clearly what we found under our oak – a satellite population.  So I have hope.

Since the deer would rather eat the Yellow Lady Slipper or Trout Lilies or Compass Plant flower buds, I’m getting my greens very fresh these days.  Five years from now, I’ll let you know how it’s going.

Final question:  anyone else out there eating this stuff?  Last year I tried making pesto out of the fully grown plants — that was a waste of good pine nuts and parmesan.

6 replies

  1. I (and others) have found that the best-tasting part of the Garlic Mustard plant is the developing stem when it’s less than a foot tall and before the flower buds form . The plants are typically at this stage in Massachusetts around the last week of April into early May. The stem is relatively mild and tender enough to be eaten raw, and also lends itself well to a quick stir-fry, or chopped up into soups. You can achieve two objectives (culinary and ecological) at once by hand-pulling the entire plant out of the ground, snapping off the tender portion of the stem, eating it (or save for later), and then placing the remainder of the plant (roots, leaves and all) into a plastic garbage bag for disposal.

    • Hi Russ,
      Thanks for your suggestion. I think that sounds like a tasty time to be devouring this menace. Because I have a small patch (and I hope it will be even smaller this next summer), I tend to go for them at a height of 4 inches or less, as soon as they are big enough to get a grip on.
      And also because my patch is small, I just hunker down and eat each plant as I pull it out. I don’t eat the roots, but I eat right down to the root.
      At that stage of development, they are tender and peppery.
      And I have the satisfaction of getting a nice, fresh serving of greens and putting a dent in the garlic mustard’s little foothold.
      I did try to make pesto out of it the first year when I found it full grown. That was a mistake.

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