Garlic mustard - if you can’t beat it, eat it!
By Dawn Pettinelli - UConn Home & Garden Education Center
Featured Article - posted Wed., May. 22, 2013
The better part of these mostly pleasant spring weekends was spent cleaning up perennial gardens and preparing some of the vegetable beds for planting. In went the spinach, lettuce, chard, peas and radishes along with some Crosby Egyptian beets for good measure. Much more remains to do, of course, but this time of year, any time spent in the vegetable garden will be rewarded during harvest.
One harvest that requires a minimal of effort is the leaves of garlic mustard (Alliara officinalis). This is because it is on the invasive plant list in Connecticut, and as such, usually is found in abundance in many locations throughout the state. In my youth, I thought this plant to be a wildflower because I would see it in many places where the field meets the woods. Later, I learned this was not a pretty, white flowering native plant but an introduced species that grows well under our conditions and keeps on spreading. Garlic mustard is native to Europe, and while no proof exists, it is possible that it was brought to the United States by early colonists both as a food plant and for medicinal purposes.
For those unfamiliar with the appearance of garlic mustard, there are many good websites that have excellent pictures like www.hort.uconn.edu/cipwg. Basically you are looking for a plant with dark green, rounded, toothed basil leaves. Leaves on flower stalks are alternate, toothed and triangular. The flowers look like typical mustard family flowers. They have four petals, occur at the ends of the flower stems and are about one-quarter inch in diameter.
The problem with garlic mustard, like many non-native plant species is that it spreads rapidly in shady, moist habitats outcompeting our native plants. It does this in several ways. First, up to 7,900 seeds can be produced by a single plant! So, even if just a fraction of the seeds germinate and the seedlings survive, that is often enough to populate an area. In general, garlic mustard plants are biennial in growth habit. That means that seeds germinate and the plant grows vegetatively in year one, followed in the second year by production of flowers and seeds. This tough plant begins second-year growth almost as soon as the snow melts in March and April, and it forms a decent size basal rosette of leaves which cover and shade out any nearby smaller and slower growing native plants.
Mature garlic mustard plants are believed to exude allelopathic chemicals which interfere or harm neighboring plants and also beneficial fungi that form symbiotic relations with our native plants. There is also a possible earthworm and garlic mustard connections. As non-native earthworms consume forest floor duff layers, they make these areas more amenable to the germination of garlic mustard seeds. It is also possible that increased earthworm activity may increase the soil pH slightly, and since garlic mustard growth is retarded on extremely acidic soils, any increase would be to the benefit of garlic mustard. Another factor in its spread is that deer won’t eat this plant!
But we can and should! When leaves or stems are crushed, a most delightful garlic aroma is emitted. Whether or not our ancestors brought this plant to America to eat doesn’t matter, as we can eat it now. There are a number of garlic mustard recipes, but I just pick some leaves and add them to stir fries, use them when making onion and garlic biscuits, and even toss them into homemade tomato sauces and soups. Any place you would like a little garlic flavor is where you can experiment and add them. Several websites including this one (www.afha.us/garlic_mustard/gm_recipes.pdf) have recipes using garlic mustard. You can add washed garlic mustard leaves to salads, salad dressings, and anything else that will benefit from a touch of garlic flavoring.
I will admit that the first shoots in early spring are more tender and flavorful, but even they are not all that great sautéed straight. They are a welcome complement, however, in many dishes. Do think about where you would be collecting them from, as garlic mustard is an abundant roadside plant, but soils in those areas could contain lead, gasoline and other contaminants.
If eating this invasive is not to your tastes, then join the Garlic Mustard Challenge or start your own chapter. There is a contest each spring to see which group of individuals can pull up the most garlic mustard plants.
If you do notice garlic mustard on your property or in other areas that you care for, pull it up and bag it, flame it, dig it up, or spray it with an herbicide. This invasive species is doing much damage to native plant populations and biodiversity. If you have questions about garlic mustard or any other gardening query, call the UConn Home & Garden Education Center (toll-free) at 877-486-6271, visit www.ladybug.uconn.edu, or get in touch with your local Cooperative Extension Center.