(Sorry, Mr. Pollan, I couldn’t resist!)
When I started foraging a few years ago, I never imagined I would be in the crux of a conservation crisis.
I just thought it was cool that humans are surrounded by food. Free food. Natural food. Food that has never shivered in refrigerated tractor trailers; food that has not been yanked from its natural habitat to be shipped around the world to a consumer who knows (and cares) nothing of its homeland; food that wasn’t forced to grow under the frequent rain of chemical pesticides and artificial fertilizer; food that remains untouched by plastic wrap and unlit by fluorescent bulbs.
Unfortunately, some of that food is unwelcome and unwanted.
Meet the much maligned focus of this week’s winter foraging spotlight: garlic mustard (Alliaria petiola).
Garlic mustard is an invasive plant that grows under tree-lined property edges and in the understory of mature forests. It especially loves disturbed ground (like many invasive species). It has a two-year lifecycle, that is to say it is a biennial, surviving the cold of winter as a basal rosette (a group of leaves that spread out in a circle and stay close to the ground), and then producing flower stalks in its second year. It produces tiny, easily dispersed seeds like many members of the mustard family. But in addition to its cold and shade tolerance, and its prolific seed production, garlic mustard is also allelopathic. That is to say, its roots exudes chemicals that suppress the growth of other competing plants near by.
Garlic mustard is bad news, from an environmental and ecological perspective.
But garlic mustard is edible. Some people like to use the first year leaves as a seasoning, although others say it’s too bitter and strong. The second year shoots, young leaves, and flower buds are apparently its tastiest stage when enjoyed as a spring vegetable. The seed pods and seeds can be eaten as well, although by that time, garlic mustard is already well on its way to invading yet patch of soil.
But any plant conservationist (and a LOT of websites) will tell you to pull garlic mustard up by the root as soon as you see it.
But if you do that to the first year plant, you won’t get to dine on the flowering stalks the second year.
On the other hand, if you pull up that first year plant, apparently the roots are edible too, with a flavor similar to horseradish.
(But don’t try this when the ground has been frozen – like recently in central Maryland – because the leaves will break off leaving the roots thoroughly stuck in the soil.)
What’s an environmentally conscious forager to do?
… yeah, I’m gonna eat those weeds. Later. In mid-spring when the flowering stalks are at their best. As long as I pull them and eat them before they can go to seed, I think it will be OK. I hope, anyway!
In order to harvest the young flowering stalks in spring, one first needs to know how to recognize the first year plants. First year garlic mustard leaves are very distinctly shaped, often described as kidney-like as they curve back around the stem.
The following photo shows a garlic mustard leaf surrounded by chickweed (Stellaria media) and purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum), two other winter-hardy wild edibles. (I guess one single garlic mustard plant can’t exude enough chemicals to fend off the other weeds!) The garlic mustard and dead nettle look similar but can be distinguished with a few details. Note how they are both roughly circular, but the garlic mustard leaf (upper right) curves back around the stem unlike the dead nettle leaf (lower left). Purple dead nettle leaves also grow from a stem, rather than a basal rosette.
If you harbor lingering doubts, you can tell the difference by touch or smell. Purple dead nettle has the characteristic square stem of members of the mint family, and the leaves are covered with soft hairs as opposed to the smooth leaves of garlic mustard. Additionally, when garlic mustard leaves are crushed they smell pungent, like, well, garlic and mustard. Purple dead nettle leaves by contrast do not have any strong, distinctive aroma. (Unless “green” counts as a smell.)
First year garlic mustard leaves are also similar in shape to common mallow (Malva neglecta).
However common mallow leaves are much smaller overall, and grow from a stem rather than from a single, central point in the ground. Also, while both mallow and garlic mustard leaves have toothed margins, those of mallow are sharper versus the rounder margins of garlic mustard.
Second year garlic mustard plants have more elongated, almost triangular-shaped leaves. I don’t have any pictures yet… hopefully I will be able to share those photos (and recipes) with you later this year!