Growing and eating garlic mustard

Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is a phenomenally successful plant. In its native range it grows from Ireland to China and from Africa to Scandinavia. In North America, where it is introduced, it is frankly rather too successful. Unpalatable to native grazers and naturally vigorous, it has become a serious invasive pest. As well as taking up space, it produces chemicals which interfere with the native mycorrhizae and sets a nasty ecological trap for a native butterfly. The caterpillars of some species of garden white butterfly naturally feed on toothwort (Dentaria). Unfortunately, garlic mustard looks very like toothwort and the butterflies are suckered into laying their eggs on it. When the larvae hatch, they are unable to digest the garlic mustard and soon die.

In its native range, garlic mustard (a.k.a. hedge garlic, Jack by the hedge and sauce alone) is much better behaved and an excellent candidate for the forest garden. Every part of it is edible, including roots, leaves, flowers and young seed pods. Flavour-wise, it does what it says on the tin, tasting like a cross between garlic and mustard. The roots are the hottest part, with a horseradish-like bite.

Garlic mustard is quite early to come into leaf and the youngest leaves are the mildest, so it’s a useful winter/spring green. As the year goes on the leaves get hotter and a bit acrid. I use them in salads and as a pot herb and often stick a leaf or two into sandwiches. There are much more imaginative ways to use it than this however. The one upside of the garlic mustard invasion of North America is that people have put some serious effort into finding ways to cook them in an effort to eat the interloper into submission.

Pesto seems to be a favourite, with the oily ingredients acting to balance the mustardiness. One recipe combines the pesto with green lentils and one particularly adventurous one throws in the roots for good measure. Garlic mustard roulade wins my prize for the most beautiful recipe and one person has even pickled the roots which must taste amazing.

Garlic mustard is a biennial, growing lots of leaf in its first year then running to seed in its second. It is a very vigorous seeder, so unless you want to end up feeling like North America, I suggest that you pull up most of the plants in the second year and just leave a few to provide the next generation. Be prepared to treat it as a weed in the rest of the garden and hoe it out ruthlessly if it seeds beyond where you want it. It is shade tolerant, growing in either full or partial shade (under a Victoria plum in my case) and not fussy as to soil.

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7 thoughts on “Growing and eating garlic mustard

  1. I have found that certain of my milk goats seem to relish the taste of garlic mustard an seems not to leave a taste in the milk. However these goats also enjoy my patches of Burdick and peonies as well. I would like to see further discussion along this line.

    • I rarely leave comments and replies, but I had to write to you. Eating garlic mustard is a GREAT IDEA. But growing it is a TERRIBLE IDEA.

      I’m involved in the effort to control garlic mustard in my rural Michigan area. It’s a huge undertaking – it’s costly, takes thousands of volunteer hours, and it’s frustrating. You have to keep going over the same areas each plant makes thousands of seeds and they can live in the soil for years.

      Garlic mustard is one of the most harmful invasive plants in North America. One seed can grow enough plants to drive out the native plants in the surrounding area within ten years. Native plants are shaded out or can’t live in the soil after garlic mustard chemically changes it. Tree seedlings are no competition for garlic mustard. The insects, birds, and animals that depend on native plants are driven out, too.

      PLEASE EAT ALL THE GARLIC MUSTARD YOU WANT, JUST DON’T GROW IT IN YOUR GARDEN. Take a walk in the woods and fields and you’ll find all the garlic mustard you’d ever want.

      If you’re interested in joining the fight against garlic mustard, google “garlic mustard” and you’ll find thousands of articles about what it does and what to do about it.

      Thanks for listening!

      • Are you suggesting that plants that prove invasive in North America should be eliminated from their native range too? If you read the article you’ll see that I mention the issues with garlic mustard in NA, but my garden is in Scotland, where it is a native plant and great for wildlife as well as for eating.

        • Alan, you got me! That’s what I get for assuming everyone lives in North America. Yes, I’m aware that garlic mustard is native to Europe and is a beneficial plant for humans and animals where you live.

          I hope you will forgive me my assumption. My hope is that other North American’s don’t make the same assumption and decide to grow it in their gardens. Many thanks! Lynn

    • Yes, goats love garlic mustard and other invasive plants. There are actually companies that provide goats to eat invasive plants on overgrown properties. It’s really exciting, because goats get rid of the invasives and a little fertilizer, too. If you use goats you don’t have to pull the plants by hand, use chemicals (which are expensive and damage the environment), or organize and pay for controlled burns.

      Youtube has a bunch of videos about using goats this way. BTW, the goats are fenced in the area where the garlic mustard is growing so they can’t get to beneficial, native, and garden plants, such as your peonies.

      here’s a video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XbZdXFt9qsY

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