Wednesday, November 2, 2011
What is Garlic Mustard?
Garlic Mustard (Alliaria officinalis) is a hearty, dark green herbaceous plant. Its leaves are arrowhead to heart shaped, scalloped-edged and deeply veined, growing up to 5 inches across. A cold weather plant, garlic mustard flourishes from late fall to early spring. It can be seen in fields, ditches, disturbed soils, near creeks, on trail edges and in open woodlands. A biennial, garlic mustard spends its first year as a basal rosette, with leaves growing close to the ground. In its second year, it sends up a flowering stalk that grows to about 3 feet. The leaves have a strong garlic odor when crushed.
Garlic mustard is considered an invasive, noxious weed. The Plant Conservation Alliance posts it on their Least Wanted list, maintaining that it poses a severe threat to native plants and animals in forest ecosystems. Basically, garlic mustard out-competes other plants, using up available light, moisture, space and nutrients from the soil, leaving less for native plants. As deer don’t care for the garlic taste, they won’t eat garlic mustard. It is prolific and can take over large wooded areas.
On the other hand, garlic mustard provides a nutrient-rich somewhat bitter green that can be eaten raw in salads (a few leaves at a time as it is bitter) or steamed, sautéed or lightly boiled. Garlic mustard contains high contents of vitamins A and C and it is rich in folic acid, vitamin B6 and manganese. It is a good source of potassium as well. Old time mountain folks used to gather fresh wild greens and used them as spring tonics to spruce up their health after a long, torpid winter. That is still a good idea and garlic mustard fits the bill as a healthy, nutritious wild green.
While many people won’t care for the slightly bitter flavor of garlic mustard, others love it. A good use of this wild herb is in making pesto. Gather a good bunch of garlic mustard when it is at the young basal rosette stage, wash it and chop it up. Mix it with olive oil, chopped garlic, parmesean cheese and pine nuts or walnuts for a surprisingly delicious pesto. Freeze the pesto in ice cube trays and use the pesto cubes to flavor soups and stews. Or simply keep it in jars in the refrigerator. The garlic mustard pesto loses its bitterness prepared this way, but remains pungent and flavorful.
Medicinally, garlic mustard is antiseptic. Juice from the leaves can be used to cleanse skin ulcers or wounds. Garlic mustard tea contains most of the plant’s vitamins and minerals and gives a definite nutritional boost to anyone who feels depleted or slightly ill.