Spring Greens: Garlic Mustard
Brassicaceae (Brassica / Mustard) family
Wild cousin of our cultivated mustards, once held in high regard by Europeans but now considered an invasive pest in North America. All parts are edible.
Pungent, bitter, nutrient-dense spring greens.
Common invasive weed on the forest floor throughout the US, especially on woodland edges and along trailsides.
Typically germinates in late fall for most of its range and overwinters, emerging as a clumpy basal rosette by February or March. Greens are ideally harvested early in the season, and become unpalatably bitter for many people once they develop flower stalks in April or May.
Seeds may be harvested when they mature in May and June. The root may be harvested anytime.
Like many of our more aggressive invasive species, garlic mustard is thought to have been intentionally introduced to North America by European settlers due to their fondness of it as a wild vegetable. They never could have known what dire consequences this would have on the native spring wildflowers of this continent — nor that we (descendants of colonizers) would all collectively forget that we used to rely on this plant for sustenance.
A key element of “conservation through use”, of which I am a firm proponent, is the understanding that we can have a positive impact on our local landscapes by becoming active participants. Do your part for your native wildflowers, and eat as much garlic mustard as you can stand!
To gather young greens, simply cut the rosette at soil level, or consider uprooting the entire plant and at least disposing of the root where it will not be able to grow, if you don’t plant to use it.
As the plant matures, you can gather the top 6” of the flowering stalk before the flower buds open, and cook this as an asparagus-like vegetable.
Garlic mustard greens are great in small quantities when consumed raw, but may be overpowering to some people’s palettes.
The flavor is something like bitter roasted garlic, perhaps an acquired taste, but one worth acquiring in my opinion.
Garlic mustard is perhaps best as a potherb, either sautéd in oil, added to soups, stews, omelettes and casseroles, or used to top pizzas — anywhere that will let its allium-like properties shine while neutralizing some of the more bitter notes.
Seeds can be harvested by placing a bag over a mature plant and shaking the seeds into it. Extra care should be taken to avoid spreading the seeds while gathering. They can be ground into a wild mustard powder for seasoning.
The root can be used as a substitute for horseradish. Consider experimenting with garlic mustard root as a Japanese-style “quick pickle” or “refrigerator pickle.”
Smells distinctly like onions/garlic especially when crushed
Dark green kidney-shaped leaves, with prominent veins, becoming pointed and triangular as seeds mature
Characteristic Brassicaceae raceme flower/seed pod pattern; white 4-petaled brassica flowers
Bears a passing resemblance to common violets and creeping charlie. See Lookalikes section for Common violet.
The distinct allium scent when you crush the foliage is a giveaway, though. You won’t find any other plant that looks and smells like garlic mustard.