Thursday, April 9, 2009

Garlic Mustard

Last week, coming home from the Amish farm, the car was moving along the quiet, not-often-used roadway when it suddenly came to a screeching halt.

"What?" said Fred, startled.

"I think that plant back there is garlic mustard," said the Handmaiden.

The car backed up slowly, as HM carefully watched the ditch that was bordering the road. "There it is!" sez HM.

HM apologized to Fred, "See, I've been looking for garlic mustard for a while, and I think that's some right there," she said pointing to a luxurious green growth on the side of the woody, viney ditch. And sure enough, when HM got some leaves to sample, it tasted garlicy and spicy. Beware of traveling with a forager; you'll be subject to stops and starts and other strange behavior when the forager think she sees a particular plant.

Garlic mustard is considered an awful invasive plant by those folks who think in such terms. It is on the Plant Conservation Alliance's Least Wanted list. It even has a poster, just like a murderer has a poster in Post Offices and such. However, for a wildcrafter or forager, it's a good find for both food and medicine options. And I'm not so sure that getting all het up about a plant being "invasive" is a great idea. The wonderful Rose at Prodigal Gardens has a very thoughtful and thought-provoking essay on "invasive" plants. I found her writing on this topic very interesting and I suggest if you are interested in foraging and other like topics that you read that essay. Here's a couple of paragraphs from it:

It may be no accident that these same weeds that are busily working to restore the land are also some of our most powerful healers. “Noxious weeds” like dandelion, burdock and garlic mustard are nutritional powerhouses that offer themselves to us humans in super-abundance to help us to nourish our depleted bodies, leach environmental toxins, and otherwise help us to cope with our industrialized world. Yet instead of receiving the gifts these plants bring with them, alien species are villanized and portrayed as terrorists, competing with crops, threatening to reclaim fields, re-route waterways, starve the herds, the list goes on.

Most of the charges being leveled at invasive plants have to do with their disruption of human activities and land management practices. . In one brochure I picked up it states that invasive plants “reduce agricultural yields, decrease gathering opportunities, and hinder recreational activities. Eurasian watermilfoil chokes waterways and restricts boat access, while the toxic properties of wild parsnip deter hiking and other land-based activities.” It would seem as though these plants were declaring war on us! From a Gaia perspective these might be considered intelligent strategies for protecting the land, but from a human perspective it is a major threat.

economic impact is calculated at some 138 billions of dollars per year. These figures factor in the cost of research, conservation projects, labor, crop losses, devaluing of land, and the high price of chemical and other eradication programs. Fortunately, herbicide manufacturers are willing to help shoulder the burden of getting rid of invasives. Monsanto, for example, has been instrumental in the formation of the Exotic Pest Plant Councils.

Garlic mustard greens are very nutritional, having goodly amounts of Vitamins A, C, E and some of the B vitamins, potassium, calcium, magnesium, copper, iron and magnese. Check it out here. It's very pungent/spicy and a bit bitter. I steamed a good bunch of the greens and we've been eating them in various dishes. This is how I handle most wild greens, since Michael doesn't particularly like them just plain. I add them to soups, stews, rice dishes, casseroles, omlets and the like. In other dishes, he doesn't notice the slight bitterness as it is balanced by other, usually milder or sweeter flavors.

For every one page on edible or medicinal uses of garlic mustard, you'll find hundreds of the "horrible invasive weed" type. Still, thank goodness there are some, such as Wildman's, on garlic mustard.

I'm about to make some pesto from the other bag of leaves I reseved from the steamed greens. I'll use the recipe from Prodigal Gardens. If you find some, but don't care for the pungent/bitter flavor, do try it in a pesto. A little pesto added to a minestrone or Tuscany bread soup is wonderful, adding a lot of flavor and nutritional richness.


Chiot's Run said...

We really like the first year plants (they're biennial). They're like tiny microgreens. I pull them out of my flowerbeds by the thousands (they are invasive here) and we eat them in salads. They're supe tasty that way. I'm thinking of trying to harvest some of the seeds of the 2nd year plants this summer to see if I can use them like mustard seeds.

Anonymous said...

I survived the tornado that came over the house...all I got was golf ball sized hail and a few limbs down in the back yard. Are there any look-a-likes of the mustard garlic? If not I have a lot of it in the yard,,,,,,,I think! I have been eating almost everything in my yard...I tried the goose grass raw, can't eat it raw......have to steam it..I thought maybe since it was a more 'natural' food I could, but no such luck. My neighbor likes all the steamed greens I have come up with too. Today I made a white sauce with boiled, chopped egg in it to put over the greens, very good!

Patricia said...

Hi Chiot--I think they're invasive here too, but so far I haven't seen them all over the place, so maybe not. I think you could use the seeds as with any other mustard.

Charli: I'm glad you survived the tornado! Be careful eating what you haven't positively identified...but I've told you that! I don't know if there are lookalikes to garlic mustard--even if there are, they wouldn't have that hefty garlic smell and taste as the garlic mustard does. Enjoy the greens...

Rene said...


Thanks for posting information on wild edibles. In my opinion, this is one of the few truly wise endeavors a human being can undertake.

I have a concern about this post, however. The source you posted for the nutritional information of garlic mustard is not for the garlic mustard herb, but a recipe using mustard greens and garlic.

Also, there definitely are garlic mustard lookalikes. In fact, i gathered some greens yesterday that i thought were first-year garlic mustard, but when i crushed the leaves, they lacked the characteristic smell.

When it comes to foraging, the onus is on us - the informants - to provide accurate, comprehensive and distinct information on every plant. ITEMizing is usually the best way to go, because lookalikes might only have subtle differences, not just in their physical Identification, but in the Time of year they grow, the Environment they grow in, and the Methods we use to prepare them for consumption. You've covered most of the ground, but it's good to have extremely precise detail on identification and to search out and identify all lookalikes. It's easy to mistaken a plant, and the consequences can be fatal. We don't want bodies on our hands, and we also don't want to deter people from experimenting with foraging.

On that note, keep it up, you're doing a great thing!

erick said...

Hey, I appreciate your knowledge on how to use garlic mustard. I am curious if you could point me towards further pages that discuss the medicinal properties of the plant.

I only wanted to mention that I find your stance on invasive species somewhat problematic. Some introduced species (invasive is such a loaded word), particularly garlic mustard, do have legitimate and drastic impacts on local ecologies that go beyond the economic-based rhetoric that is used to get funding for their removal. In many places in Wayne county Indiana, where I am, if garlic mustard isn't continually removed it will completely replace all of our native North American plants - bloodroot, hepatica, twinleaf, cutleaf toothwort, etc. I'm sure you'll agree that all the plants Gaia has bestowed to each part of the world are valuable. They have also been shown to inhibit tree growth by up to 50% by poisoning the trees' mutualistic mycorrhizae. In its native range of Europe other native species have coevolved with garlic mustard and so the communities exist in a balanced equilibrium. Eventually, after thousands of years, that will happen here too. Anyways, i too think it is foolish to demonize garlic mustard. The plant is here to stay and we should be grateful to be able to harvest it in such abundance. And harvest it we should!