Garlic Mustard – A Delicious Invader
Despite not being native to North America, Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) has become quite a familiar sight throughout the continent, especially in sparse woodlands, floodplains, and parks. This plant has become highly invasive since it was introduced from Europe. Each and every year, landowners, natural resource departments, environmentalists, and others go to great lengths to eradicate it, and with good reason.
Back in England, it’s just another weed, but here in North America, Garlic Mustard has superpowers. Even though it’s in the cabbage family along with broccoli and kale, it’s resistant to all of the pests and diseases that plague those plants on this continent. Cabbage worms won’t touch it, grubs won’t chew its roots, it doesn’t mildew or blight. It’s a perfect survivor. Its roots even produce chemicals that make the soil it inhabits toxic to other plants so that only other garlic mustard plants can survive there. It even kills valuable fungal mycelia that are crucial to decomposition and soil development. Because of this, it is very common for a few garlic mustard plants to quickly colonize large areas and push out nearly all of the native vegetation.
The silver lining is that when foraging for Garlic Mustard you can never take too much. When foraging native plants, one must be conscientious of the sustainability of their actions, but with garlic mustard, the more you harvest, the better off you leave the environment as long as you’re careful not to transfer any seeds to new areas. Also, if you’re harvesting from public land, you can pretty much guarantee that the authorities won’t hassle you about removing garlic mustard and private landowners that normally won’t let anyone onto their land for other reasons are often quite happy to let you come in and remove garlic mustard for them. Some may even pay you to do so!
Identification and Harvest
In the early part of spring, garlic mustard will start showing up as rosettes of green, kidney-shaped leaves. The leaf stems will usually be a mix of purple and green and the leaves themselves will have scalloped margins (leaf edges) and a sort-of mosaic looking vein pattern.
As the plant matures it will send up several stalks. The basal leaves will be becoming more and more bitter at this time, but the top few inches of the plant are usually still fairly mild until the flowers appear. The plant produces a floret that looks quite a bit like tiny broccoli or broccoli raab. The garlic mustard floret will typically be no bigger around than a dime and will be surrounded by triangularly shaped leaves that bear the same mosaic pattern and scalloped / toothed edges as do the kidney-shaped leaves at the base of the plant. Cut off the rosette with about the top three to four inches of the stalk for use as a steamed or sautéed vegetable.
Garlic Mustard is a true member of the mustard family and the adult plants bear the same four-petaled, cross-shaped blossom that all mustards do. They look nearly identical to broccoli flowers only white instead of yellow. Although identifying garlic mustard by its blossoms can be a great way to note locations from which to gather garlic mustard the following year, by the time the flowers appear the plants will be far too bitter to use.
In the Kitchen
This terrible, foreign invader does have one clear redeeming feature… it’s absolutely delicious! Though they call it Jack by the Hedge in the UK, Garlic Mustard really is a very appropriate name for this zesty spring green. The strong chemicals in the leaves that make it resistant to insect pests are the same ones that make it appealing to humans. As the name implies, it has a zesty, garlic flavor, and the firm heartiness of mustards.
The young, tender leaves of garlic mustard are perfect for spring salads. It’s best not to use them as the salad base, as they can have some accumulated bitterness. Just chop a few of them up and toss them with other salad blends. They pair very well with almost any savory dressing but are especially nice with Caesar, Greek, and Italian. I chop the fresh leaves and use them as an herb, typically right along with basil and oregano on any Italian or Mexican dish. Garlic mustard is an excellent seasoning and splash of color on top of meatloaf, pasta, enchiladas, pizza, garlic bread, or just about anything you could imagine. Try some fresh garlic mustard greens on a sandwich instead of lettuce and you’ll have completely transformed your workday.
Garlic mustard florets are excellent sautéed in a little oil with just a pinch of minced garlic and salt and pepper to taste. They’re also quite at home in Asian inspired cuisine and make a nice addition to soups. The older the plants are, the more bitterness will be present in the florets, so try to collect the shortest, youngest ones you can find.