“In this time” still means the burgeoning spring–and, in the midst of nationwide and worldwide worry and struggle with the effects of coronavirus on every scale, from individual health to economic crisis, getting outside and connecting with nature can benefit any of us who are able to do it. Wild plants are bursting from the ground as they do every year, offering us powerful food-medicine to support strong and resilient bodies. One of the first to appear is the nefarious, invasive, delicious and incredibly nutritious garlic mustard–and this is the best time of year to eat as much of it as we can.
Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) loves disturbed areas of all kinds, from forest understory overbrowsed by unchecked deer populations to empty lots. It’s a member of the brassica family, along with broccoli, cabbage, and a huge number of our other most common domesticated food plants. Garlic mustard, especially early in the season, has a great flavor when eaten raw–as its name suggests, there’s a nice balance of garlic/onion flavor and a little mustard-ey punch. As conditions get hotter and the plant grows, it becomes spicier and more bitter–and as it persists into the autumn, it takes on a kind of “dirty” flavor that I find unpleasant. By that point, though, I no longer crave garlic mustard anyway; there are plenty of other wild greens available.
I definitely prefer garlic mustard raw, as an addition to salads, or chopped and sprinkled atop salads, stir-fries, pasta, meat or soups. Larger leaves make a nice wrap, analogous to stuffed grape leaves. When cooked, the plant loses its pleasing spice quickly (like mustard greens in general), leaving mostly its bitter flavor. If I cook it, it’s generally with other wild greens, like wintercress and young nettles. I know a lot of people who love garlic mustard pesto; I haven’t personally fallen for it, though I like it better when I add nettles or dandelion.
Garlic mustard one of the most nutritious plants we can eat, exceeding all domestic greens (according to foraging expert John Kallas, PhD, in his wonderful and well-researched book Edible Wild Plants) in fiber, vitamin C, vitamin E and zinc, and high in omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, manganese and iron. It’s also rich in phytochemicals that the plant produces to repel insect pests, and we benefit greatly from these when we vary our diet with the seasons (some of these phytochemicals can be detrimental when consumed in large amounts for long periods of time, yet incredibly helpful in more limited doses).
As if these weren’t sufficient reasons for us to forage garlic mustard, doing so also helps our local ecosystems by discouraging the spread of a serious invasive. In Europe, the plant’s native home, its populations are kept in check by natural predators. Here, it thrives by overtaking disturbed areas, and is particularly damaging to forest understories. Garlic mustard roots exude chemicals that suppress the growth of other plants and kill fungi on which plant roots depend (it’s been overtaking and reducing yields in our favorite morel patch over the last couple of years). This is the perfect time to pick as much of it as we can, ideally uprooting it so it doesn’t resprout, which is easy when the ground’s wet from snowmelt and spring rains (the root, incidentally, can also be finely chopped or grated to make a horseradish-like condiment, though I find it a real pain to clean and trim, so I don’t do this often; I’ve processed garlic mustard root this way and steeped it in vinegar as one ingredient in an interesting spring hot sauce).
Garlic mustard plants in their second year start sending up flower stalks by mid-to-late April; if you catch it when it’s in flower, and it’s too hard to pull, snap off flower heads and eat them! They’re delicious and spicy. One detail and two cautions: the photo above is a fairly bad picture of the initial young leaves, which resemble ground ivy (Creeping Charlie) or young violet leaves. As of this writing, I don’t have a good photo of the later, larger leaves, but they’re much more like elongated triangles. There’s plenty of information out there on identifying garlic mustard. The garlicky smell, when crushed, is a giveaway, though.
The first caution is to make sure you don’t help garlic mustard spread. If you’re harvesting or pulling it in its flowering stage, be sure to clean off your shoes and brush your pants before leaving the area, so you don’t carry seeds into other places. Also, it helps to leave uprooted plants–if you’re not eating all of them–in a spot (like a rock, log or sidewalk) where they’ll dry out and be unlikely to re-root.
The second caution: make sure no-one’s spraying your garlic mustard patch with herbicide before you eat or even touch it. I’ve been in state park forests and natural areas a number of times and noticed the telltale blue stain of Roundup on garlic mustard leaves. As always, when harvesting any plant for food, make sure you know enough about the area to be sure the ground isn’t full of poison from previous seasons.
When you’re out walking, whether it’s on a casual stroll or on a foraging expedition, take some time to help your local ecosystems and add a wonderful plant to your diet by pulling garlic mustard. If enough of us do it for enough years in a row, we can render herbicides pointless and contribute to the health of plants, fungi, and human beings.