Throughout Ontario, an innocuous looking weed has taken hold. It has spread through the countryside, into gardens, and into conservation areas like Altona Forest. It will grow in shade or sun and has the ability to alter the soil’s biology. It pushes out native plants that support wildlife and rare native butterflies. This insidious invasive alien is a herb called garlic mustard.
Would you recognize garlic mustard if you see it? It grows to about a foot and half high, has small four-petaled white flowers at this time of year, and triangular serrated-edged leaves. I’ve seen it all around our neighbourhood – and in the forest.
Lots of garlic mustard near post 36 or 30
You will see many community-organized events aimed at getting rid of it. And even in areas where the challenge has been dealt with it will move back in, so vigilance and constant action is the only recourse. Seeds remain viable in the soil for years – necessitating regular removal. Each garlic mustard plant produces hundreds of seeds – spread by people (clothing, shoes and bike tires) and animals, by wind, along streams and trails.
Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) was intentionally brought to the area as a cooking herb. It is native to Europe, Asia and north Africa. If you crush a leaf between your fingers it has garlic scent. It’s actually an interesting and tasty herb.
Invasive plants have long been a problem – things that were planted for a purpose or that stowed away unseen on ships only to gain a foothold in these woods. Foreign invasive plants don’t have any natural uses for wildlife so they don’t benefit the native ecosystem, they push out (out-compete) natives that actually do contribute to the local biodiversity and life-cycles, and they have no local enemies or predators so they spread uncontrollably.
Garlic mustard pushes out native wildflowers like trillium, toothwort, and trout lilies and changes the biology of the soil to keep natives from returning.
Garlic mustard brings together two usually-opposed groups:
Firstly, conservation areas are regulated and protected so species are not to be disturbed in any way. With so much of the land converted for human habitation, farming and commercial use, saving ravines, watershed areas, and even small tracts of land is vital. They become less viable for plant, bird and other species. Every native plant becomes more important.
Secondly, we have seen a marked rise in the interest in home-grown foods and foraging. Many cultural groups also have long histories of foraging for foods in natural areas. This is problematic for a number of reasons: most natural areas are protected by law and should not be foraged from. More importantly, only 2-3 people can completely deplete a plant for this year and all future years. If the foraging ethos is only remove 1 of 4 of the plants, each successive person exponentially depletes the reproducing stock. This is because small areas of land are over-used by many people.
Enter garlic mustard. It’s foreign and an invasive plant. It’s delicious and has many uses in the kitchen. It’s easy to identify and harvest. So should you pull it up from a conservation area and take it home for dinner? Absolutely! (Just be very careful where you step so you don’t kill next years native wildflowers.) You can’t deplete it enough – take all you want. Is that official? Likely not – because those who don’t understand the whole story will see ambiguity and trample or remove native species from these amazing places to the long-term detriment of nature.
Garlic mustard is easily found, tasty, and a foragable food. Harvest it – and enjoy it. It is the best of all worlds when you are helping the forest, native biodiversity, and trying the foraging trend in the only genuinely sustainable way. Bon appetite!
Resources ~ Begin Your Reading Here
Recognizing Garlic Mustard (photos)
Garlic Mustard (US source – NY Invasive Species)
Impacts of Garlic Mustard (US source – Penn State)
- Pesto, Ravioli & More (lots of recipes in pdf)
- Pesto and Salads & More
- Condiment (like horseradish?)
PS Even if you don’t want to eat it, please join a group and pull it! And remember – invasive species go in the garbage and NOT in yard waste collection or composting
Biting Back Garlic Mustard ~ 2017 Natasha G