“What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Welcome back to Wonderfully Wild! Today's post is the sixth in the series. (If you missed the rest – posted throughout the past few seasons – you can find them here.)
Wonderfully Wild is designed to share with you some thoughts on using wild, foraged plants in your family's meals and medicines. Plants that offer us so much more than their cultivated counterparts.
The series written in real-time as the season unfolds. Nothing overwhelming or too technical, but just some simple herbs and roots and fruits you can enjoy to get your feet wet (sometimes literally!) with wild edibles and medicinals.
I hesitate to use the word "wonderful" to describe the next plant in our Wonderfully Wild series, garlic mustard.
Here in the US garlic mustard is one of the greatest threats facing our native flora. But as an edible plant we have twice the motivation to remove it! Because by pulling all you find you'll be doing good for the ecosystem and filling your freezer with a tasty, nourishing green at the same time.
Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata)
Garlic mustard is an aggressively spreading biennial (two-year) plant. It quickly overtakes the forest floor and is very difficult to eradicate once it is established.
But garlic mustard is edible! It is high in Vitamin C, carotenoids and minerals and contains a good amount of fiber. (I recommend eating the second year plants only as the first year plants contain more of the bitter compounds that it uses for defense purposes and so are not as tasty.)
To identify garlic mustard in the field we'll look for it's key distinguishing characteristics. Use the photographs above as a guide.
First year versus second year plants: The first year of garlic mustard growth appears as a low rosette of leaves at ground level. The second year plants are taller (up to 4' in height) and often multi-stemmed.
Leaves: First year leaves are dark green and kidney-shaped with a scalloped edge and deep irregular veining.
The second year leaves are heart-shaped, coarsely toothed, and emerging in an alternate pattern along the stem. I find the garlic scent to be inconsistent, but occasionally you will find the leaves smell of garlic.
Flowers: Clusters of white, four-petaled flowers occur on second year plants only, blooming from spring into summer.
Look-alikes: Here in Wisconsin the only near look-alike is for the first year garlic mustard. The leaves resemble Creeping Charlie. However Creeping Charlie grows from a runner (a vine across the ground) rather than from a rosette. Also creeping charlie bears small purple flowers and has smaller leaves.
Public service: Do your part at protecting our native flora! Pull all garlic mustard you find, and keep at it year after year. It's a small chore to ensure a spring carpet of trillium, wood anemone, Dutchman's breeches, and other ephemeral plants continue to thrive in our woodlands. But take note! Second year plants will continue to flower and set seed even after pulling! Second year plants must be bagged and removed from the site to prevent further infestation. (Do not compost. Burn or bag and landfill.)
On the menu: Garlic mustard can be added to any sauteed greens mixture like nettle, spinach, or kale. Simply remove the leaves from the stem, cook and eat! A nice addition to a fritata or to your favorite saute mix.
My favorite way to enjoy garlic mustard, however, is as pesto. It's easy to make a great amount in a hurry. And the woods will thank you!
Remember: never eat plants you have harvested from a roadside. They often contain high amounts of toxins. Find a trail or forest for your harvest.
One additional caveat: Like other foods (including lima beans and almonds) raw garlic mustard leaves contain trace amounts of cyanide. The amount is tiny, but if you made a habit of eating copious amounts of the raw leaves it wouldn't be a healthy choice. Moderation (in all things) is your friend.
How to Harvest
Harvest garlic mustard as follows to reduce it's hold on your wild areas:
- Ideally harvest in April or May before the plants begin to set seed. The best time to pull is after the ground has been softened by rain.
- Grip the plant near the base and pull with slow, gentle, consistent pressure. It's important to get the roots but if the plant breaks off simply return later in the year to try again.
- Shake off excess soil and transfer your plant to a plastic bag.
- Repeat with every garlic mustard plant in the vicinity if possible, including the tiny wisp-like baby plants.
- Come back next spring and begin again.
Once you've done your good deed and pulled all the garlic mustard you can find, it's time to reward yourself with some pesto!
Woods Warrior Garlic Mustard Pesto Recipe
Serve on pizza, pasta, sandwiches, and eggs. A bit more bitter than a basil pesto, Garlic Mustard Pesto is bold and delicious. We brought a big bowl of Garlic Mustard Pesto noodles to our last potluck and they were gone in a snap! Even the kids loved them.
Pesto freezes well, so make extra and freeze in ice cube trays or flattened zip bags.
- 2 C packed garlic mustard leaves (stems and roots removed)
- 1 C packed nettle leaf, spinach, or other mild green
- 1/2 C sliced ramps, chives, or green onions (optional)
- 3/4 C olive oil or other neutral oil
- 2/3 C almonds or other mild nut
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed or crushed
- 1 tsp salt
Pluck garlic mustard leaves off of the stem and transfer to a strainer for washing. Rinse well and blot dry.
Transfer all ingredients to food processor. Pulse to combine, then run food processor until pesto is nearly smooth. Adjust seasoning and serve.
Note: Don't fret! Nettle loses its sting when pureed.
And finally, a special thank you to all of the garlic mustard crusaders out there. My new friend Jim at Wyalusing State Park, our tireless neighbors Alan and Shirley, and all of the others who devote their spring to killing or pulling this aggressive invasive. I salute you!