Monday, March 11, 2013

Garlic Mustard

I promise I'll be writing new posts soon. The birds are returning and the plants are waking up and I am getting my camera ready. For now though, I'm going to repost an oldie from my original blog that I wrote back in 2009, albeit a little later in the spring than we are now. Garlic mustard is just beginning to emerge around here in mid-March. Consider it inspiration for all those edibles just starting to pop up. Garlic mustard is just one of the many plants we'll be meeting and tasting in this month's Folk Herbalism class.

Garlic mustard is a biennial of the mustard family (Cruciferae). Above is a photo of first year leaves emerging en masse under the Lilac.

And here are early second year leaves I photoed earlier in the spring.

Now those same plants look more like this (above), with tiny white flower beginning to open.
The leaves, blossoms and seed pods of this plant are edible and have a definite spicy, garlicy taste that is really not unpleasant. Garlic mustard is a main ingredient in my wild greens pesto, and also goes well mixed into a mesclun salad mix.

Maude Grieve had written that garlic mustard "warms the stomach and strengthens the digestive faculties," and can be used externally as an antiseptic for gangrene and ulcers.

This month garlic mustard was featured in Rainer's Ranger Rick magazine in an article entitled, "America's Least Wanted." It is the same argument about invasive species of plants and animals that "came from other parts of the world, where they naturally belonged (my italics)" Garlic mustard is charged with crowding out native plants. There is also a recipe for garlic mustard pesto in a section called "Eat Your Enemy." I think it's wonderful that young people reading this magazine will become aware they can eat garlic mustard (though I do think my pesto recipe is better, ahem), but I am saddened that they are encouraged to think of this wonderful plant as an enemy.

(now for the rant)
I understand the angle of those who argue the threat of "exotic invasive" species to "native" species. Yet if we think more deeply about this issue it begins to get progressively vague and questionable. What is a native species? One that has been here for a hundred? Five hundred? What about those carried by animals (birds for instance)? Species of plants and animals (including humans) have been on the move over the surface of the earth from the beginning. Balances are upset, and re-established. It's all part of the cosmic dance. As Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier state in their tome Edible Forest Gardens, "the fact is that species disperse into new habitats all the time, even across large expanses of ocean. They also naturalize and integrate into new ecological communities all the time, and they do so at different rates depending on the characteristics of the species, the environment, and the ecosystem's other inhabitants." In my heart I do not feel that labeling some living thing as "invasive," "alien," or "enemy" does any good to bring things back into balance. And to be quite honest, it reminds me of the ugly way some Americans speak of immigrants to this country (as if any of us are not descended from immigrants). As Jacke and Toensmeier go on to say, "not only are ecosystems dynamic and ever changing, but so is our understanding of them." Let's open our minds and hearts to new possible understandings about why these plants and animals are here, and indeed why we are here, and what we can learn from one another.

Song of the Garlic Mustard
(in America)

You call me invasive.
You say I'm a pest.
But I have my gifts
Along with the rest.

In the Old World I'm valued,
A edible weed;
In the New World I'm chided
For my prodigious seed.

Yet these same critics came
From the Old World as well,
And altered the balance
In ways too harsh to tell.

We're both here to stay,
That's plain as can be,
So I'll value you,
If you value me.

Now let's work together
In mutual joy,
And bring a new balance
For all to enjoy!


  1. Another Goodie April! Your prose is so poetic! I see a book in the making :)
    Much Love,