Garlic Mustard

Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata). The very mention of its name invokes anger in the hearts of environmentally minded people everywhere.This nasty little mustard originally hails from Europe, parts of Africa, and all the way to northern Scandinavia but is now found in many areas of North America. It was introduced here in the 1800’s. Since then, it has done a great job of outcompeting our native woodland herb species to a staggering degree. Once garlic mustard gets into an area, it is not long before entire populations of plants are wiped out. What makes this rather small biennial particularly nasty is its habit of poisoning the soil. Garlic mustard is what we call an allelopathic plant. It exudes chemicals from its roots than inhibit the growth of plants and, at least in this case, kills the soil fungi that plants rely on. Since North American plant species never evolved with garlic mustard’s deadly toxins, they do not cope well in its presence. Many species of insects that rely on woodland herbs, especially spring ephemerals, are being displaced by the loss of these plants thanks to garlic mustard. One species of butterfly, the Virginia white (Pieris virginiensis), has declined in such numbers that it has become a sort of unofficial poster child for garlic mustard eradication. To make matters worse, butterfly eggs laid on garlic mustard seem to succumb to poisoning and never hatch. Not many animals find garlic mustard to be all that appetizing either. Even deer tend to ignore this plant! In other words, there are no natural predators to keep it in check so populations tend to grow and expand unchecked. The good news here is that one species has come up with some pretty creative ways to consume this plant; humans. Thats right, garlic mustard can be quite tasty in the right setting. It makes a great salad topper and if the flower buds are harvested before they bloom, they taste a lot like broccoli. This just adds more incentive to pick any and all garlic mustard you see. It comes up pretty easy with minimal effort and there really is no shortage of it around. If you plan to eat this plant after pulling just make sure you are taking it from an area free of soil pollutants. Make sure to cook garlic mustard well as its leaves contain some cyanide, which, like lima beans, become safe to eat when exposed to the high heat of the stove.

Photo Credit: Elaine Haug USDA Plants

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