We live in a time in which much of our food comes from domesticated plants. We buy produce from stores, farmers markets, and produce auctions. Some of us grow the produce in our gardens. What is not widely known is that there is a wide array of edible plants that we fail to notice because of the significant loss of tradition in gathering food from the wild. Examples of common edible plants are dandelions, dead purple nettles, violets, redbuds, and onion grass. But one of the most pervasive edible plants in our region is an invasive plant known as garlic mustard. Many edible invasive plants, such as Japanese honeysuckle, Japanese knotweed, narrow-leaf cattail and kudzu, are plentiful. If we seek to control their spread by uprooting them, why not add them to our plates? We can nourish ourselves and help the environment at the same time!
Brief History of Garlic Mustard:
Garlic Mustard came to North America from European settlers who used the plant as seasoning and medicine (1). Given that garlic mustard has no natural predators in North America, it has spread quickly throughout the United States and Canada, displacing native plants. Garlic mustard outcompetes native perennial flowers, such as blue bells, trillium, spring beauties, purple cress and more. This removes food sources for animals, such as caterpillars and native bees, that depend on these perennial plants. When one part of the food chain is disrupted, it creates a domino effect higher up the food chain and so areas that are heavily infested with garlic mustard see a drastic decrease in biodiversity.
How to Identify Garlic Mustard:
Disclaimer: As with any plant found in nature that one plans to eat, it is wise to familiarize yourself with the plant so you do not pick anything poisonous. In the case of garlic mustard, its look-a-like, the violet, also happens to be edible.
Looking closely at garlic mustard stems, you will see “hairs.” This is a good way to tell the difference between violets and young garlic mustard as violets will not have these “hairs” on their stems. Violets also do not have redness at the base of their stems like garlic mustards do. The garlic mustard’s single taproot tends to hook into the ground at an angle, rather than growing straight down.
Garlic mustard will spend the first year of its life growing more leaves in a rosette, then over-winter. During the second-year of its life, it will form a cluster of buds, surrounded by small leaves, at the tip of the plant. These buds will later bloom into several four-petal, white flowers.
Garlic mustard stalks can grow to be over two feet tall after bolting. The leaves near the base are round and kidney-shaped with smooth grooves along the edge. The leaves near the top of the plant become more pointed and heart-shaped, with deeper, toothy grooves. All of the leaves have deep veins. The leaves on the stalk alternate, while they cluster at the bottom.
Be sure to pick the garlic mustard before it seeds. Seed pods look like skinny, string beans pointing upwards. Garlic mustard disperses by growing tall and letting gravity or wind force it down so that, when its seed pods burst, seedlings will grow a foot or so away from their parent. If you find garlic mustard that has already formed seed pods, you need to cut the tip off first and stuff them immediately into a bag without holes so that you do not accidentally disperse the seeds when pulling the rest of the garlic mustard plant out of the ground. When pulling garlic mustard, also be sure to pull the taproot with it. Otherwise, the garlic mustard will grow back.It’s easiest to pull them out if you take a hold of the bottom of the plant and pull in the direction opposite of the taproot’s hook.
Cooking with Garlic Mustard:
Note: After the garlic mustard bolts, the leaves become more bitter, so some who harvest garlic mustard recommend picking the garlic mustard before it has a chance to do so. Even after the garlic mustard has bolted, the leaves are still edible (and even palatable if you do not mind the slight bitterness, like that of cooked swiss chard). For the stronger garlic and mustard flavor, choose younger leaves.
Before cooking with garlic mustard, make sure to wash the leaves.
Garlic Mustard Pesto
- ¾ cups fresh basil leaves
- 1½ cups of fresh garlic mustard
- ¼ cups cashews or walnuts (depends on your preference)
- ⅓ cups grated parmesan
- 4 cloves of garlic, peeled and diced
- ½ tsp salt
- ½ tsp black pepper
- 1 ½ tbsp lemon juice
- ½ cups olive oil
Add all ingredients into a blender and blend. Amount of oil can be adjusted. Less oil makes for a thicker, more spreadable pesto, while more oil makes a pesto better suited to pasta dishes.
Sauteed Vegetables with Garlic Mustard
- ½ cup of diced garlic mustard
- 1 whole onion, chopped
- 1 whole green pepper, chopped
- 1 cup asparagus, chopped
- ¾ cup chopped or sliced mushrooms
- 2 tbsp Olive oil or vegetable oil
- Salt & Black pepper to taste
Chop and dice the ingredients. Pour oil of your choice into the pan on medium heat, allow it to heat for one minute. Add chopped onions, green pepper, and asparagus to the pan. Cook until onions are caramelized. Add the mushrooms and garlic mustard next and season with salt and black pepper to taste. Sauces, such as soy sauce, teriyaki or worcestershire sauce can be added while cooking for additional flavor (also to taste, so add a bit at a time and taste test until the flavor is where you like it. Salt is not needed if you use soy sauce, as the sauce has plenty of sodium).
Other garlic mustard recipes to try out:
“Garlic Mustard Monitoring Along the Bruce Trail in the Nottawasaga Valley Watershed” (PDF). Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority. Retrieved 13 April 2020.
Kris Vandervaart attended Ohio University for their Environmental Biology degree. As a part of their Environmental Studies certificate, they interned with Rural Action as a Zero Waste Initiative team member. Since then, they’ve served as an AmeriCorps member and VISTA with the Environmental Education team and Sustainable Agriculture team. Kris also is the designer and editor for the Trailblazer Magazine, a Buckeye Trail Association publication.