Garlic Mustard, Week Ending 4/5/2020

Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is an invasive weed in the mustard family. Every part of the plant is edible, although not always tasty depending on where it is during its life cycle. As a biennial, it spends the first year growing leaves and tap root; in year two, tall flower stalks grow and produce copious small seeds.

Wait, I shouldn’t say “weed.” The difference between a weed and a vegetable is an judgement. Garlic mustard was introduced to North America from Europe on purpose, perhaps as a medicinal herb or a vegetable. It earned the “weed” classification because it readily spreads to places where it is unwanted… which is, well, basically everywhere.

Garlic mustard leaves and flower buds add pungent flavor to savory dishes
Garlic mustard leaves and flower buds add pungent flavor to savory dishes

I read some alternative points of view recently on “invasive” species, suggesting that newly introduced species in an ecosystem shouldn’t automatically considered bad. But for garlic mustard, I still label it bad because it reduces biodiversity. It grows happily in shady areas, and cheerfully chokes out native plants in the understory of forests. In addition to crowding out other plants, garlic mustard appears to have allelopathic effects, producing compounds which discourage other plants from being able to grow.

You know what we need to do, folks. We need to eat this weed.

Spring is a perfect time to harvest garlic mustard. These are plants which have overwintered, and are now entering the second phase of their growth. This is a perfect time to interrupt their propagation, by preventing them from forming flowers and thus seeds. In this photo you can see the earliest stages of flower buds forming – definitely time for some biocontrol of this patch!

This garlic mustard patch is ready for harvesting!
This garlic mustard patch is ready for harvesting!

Another advantage to eating spring garlic mustard: most garden crops are only starting to grow, but garlic mustard is at the perfect stage for eating.

The leaves have a – you guessed it! – garlicky flavor which goes well with strongly flavored dishes. Personally, I prefer to use them almost as a garnish or seasoning, rather than a vegetable. But I also have very picky eaters in my family! Choose the best leaves not by size but the color and texture. Yellowish green, soft flimsy leaves reflect where new growth is occurring, and these areas will provide the best eating.

Harvest garlic mustard by pulling up the entire plant if possible. The roots have a horseradish-like bite, and can be used similarly in cooking. (I haven’t tried this yet myself.) If you don’t eat the roots, discard them carefully or the plant may be able to regrow. For example, if you toss them in the compost bin without sufficiently smothering them. (Ask me how I know…)

Garlic mustard leaves shrink dramatically when cooked, so only the largest leaves need to be chopped or torn in half for use. Discard the stems and any tough, stiff, dark colored leaves. Garlic mustard makes an amazing addition to any frittata….

This frittata features hot Italian sausage paired with garlic mustard
This frittata features hot Italian sausage paired with garlic mustard

… as well as a delightful garnish on a feta, sundried tomato and olive pizza.

Garlic mustard garnish kicks up the flavor on pizza
Garlic mustard garnish kicks up the flavor on pizza

In addition to using garlic mustard as an accent, you can also include it with any of your regular recipes for cooked greens. I do not have a photo of this, because there is no world in which a pile of sauteed greens looks good enough to photograph, no matter how tasty the dish actually is! I recommend from personal experience that garlic mustard comprise only one-fourth or so of total volume of greens. I.e., if the recipe calls for four cups total, try one cup of garlic mustard and three cups of more conventional veggies like spinach or baby kale or whatever else you like to cook. This is an excellent way to introduce garlic mustard to finicky taste buds.

Garlic mustard leaves can also be eaten raw, if you wish to add the most tender leaves and buds to a fresh salad, or spice up a sandwich. And if you have a large enough supply of plants, there is always garlic mustard pesto!

Best of all, garlic mustard is high in nutrients like vitamin A and C – allegedly higher than most vegetables you could buy at the grocery store. If you want specifics, there are details here.

Protect your local ecosystems, enjoy better health, and eat for free – forage some garlic mustard today!

What wild vegetables are you harvesting in your area?

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