Garlic Mustard

Gazette Article by: Cynthia Gehrie
Appeared in the Gazette: Summer 1997

Have you noticed a knee-high plant with tiny white flowers at the top of a leafy stalk? Look closely. The leaf is shaped like a heart; its edge is ruffled. On the mature plant, many stems branch from the base of a single, deep root. Where the leaf stem joins the stalk there is often a little sucker leaf like you find on a tomato vine. If you pick a leaf and crush it between your fingers, you will smell garlic. This is garlic mustard.

In Skokie Lagoons, acres are covered with garlic mustard. In the village, peer at any ungroomed area. Garlic mustard lines mowed areas next to woodlands, finds a toehold along fences, and lurks in borders and edges. In Bell Woods and along the beach bluff, garlic mustard is crowding the wildflowers. It is obvious why it is called invasive. It puts pressure on neighboring plants. It is pushy; it means to dominate the landscape. But it happens S L O W L Y; so slowly that we often do not notice initially. And it is deceptive. For one thing, it changes its shape. The first year it looks like a lush, lovely, harmless little ground cover. But each little plant is really a coiled spring, tightening beneath the ground, sending down roots. The second year it SPRINGS. Within a few days the stalk shoots up, and little flower buds appear. Garlic mustard begins to bloom the first week of May and continues until September. A single root can spawn a dozen stalks, so that the cluster of stalks at the base of the plant at ground level averages about eight inches across. It only takes two to three plants to cover a square foot; a few score plants can squeeze out their neighbors and begin to dominate large areas.

In July the seedpods start to form. Each pod swells along the stalk near the top, sheltering hundreds of seeds. In late summer the pods split, spraying the ground with thousands of seeds. The following spring they sprout, creating that sweet ground cover. When they spring up in the second year, people begin to remark that the landscape looks very different. “What are those plants?” they wonder. “Where did the others go?”

What to do? In June, when the ground is still moist and loose, it is very easy to pull garlic mustard. Slowly but firmly pull it out at the root; if you yank, the root will snap and grow another plant. If you wait until later in the season when the clay hardens, the roots will be set in concrete, and you will have to dig. In no time you will fill a lawn bag, and another, and another.

Or you can put the young leaves in salads. They are also good as cooked greens. The flower buds taste a bit like broccoli. (Boil un-opened for three to five minutes.) As the leaves mature, however, they become too bitter to eat. The green seedpods, if collected when the flowers are still blooming, can be added to salads or pickled. The entire plant is rich in vitamins A, B1, B2, and C. The flower buds are rich in protein (Edible Wild Plants, Roger Tory Peterson Field Guide).

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