Ah, the humble and sometimes hated Garlic Mustard…
Known in the hoity-toity world of Latin based taxonomy as ‘Alliaria petiolata.’
I just love Latin taxonomy names. Especially since I learned all the plants the old fashioned way from my father who never referred to this plant as an ‘Alliaria petiolata’, and would have wondered what the heck I was talking about if I’d called it that and not ‘Garlic Mustard’. Yep, Latin names. Just love them to bits. And they make oh-so-much sense. Oh well, it gives me something to do in the second half of my life. Maybe if I work really hard at it I’ll sound like an official ‘expert’ in the next few decades. 😉
But ‘Alliaria petiolata’… It’s one of those Latin names that I forget quite often, (right up there with Hypochaeris radicata), but know it instantly again whenever I see it written in text. Allaria is a reference to the garlic family, and petiolata is a reference to being long stemmed. This is one of those rare exceptions where the Latin name actually makes sense.
This oft reviled plant is actually one of nature’s powerhouses of nutrition. It’s eaten and adored in Europe, and we spend all kinds of public funding here to eradicate it by spraying and burning, and herbicides. No one seems to bother with the logical solution. Eat it!
The leaves, stems, and even roots of this plant are edible. In fact, it’s one of those lovely plants which, like a dandelion, are edible 100% of the time of year. Even the seeds and seed pods are edible if you really want to eat them.
So, what does it look like in depth, and how do we identify it?
Let’s take a leisurely tumble through the tasty realm of the humble and hated garlic mustard.
One can find many pictures of this plant on the net, some good, some not. But rarely will you actually find anything that shows you the plant in it’s younger and less identifiable stages.
I strive to use my own pictures for everything, and try to include ones that have some manner of clarity towards the parts of the plants that are in the most need of accurate identification. I hope they help.
This plant is definitely a Brassicaceae (also genus Brassica), as you will see if you are even passingly familiar with the ‘mustard’ family of plants.
Garlic mustard starts life as a little guy, who soon forms a basal rosette.
At this stage it can be hard to identify if you aren’t familiar with garlic mustard, as it looks like any number of other green little plants.
However, note the root and the sharp upturned ‘L’ like way the main root curves?
That’s pretty prominent in any garlic mustard that I’ve ever dug up, and it’s also a good aid in identifying the plant.
The young basal leaves of this plant look quite different from the mature leaves, which have a more pointed shape. All are easy to recognize once you’ve seen the plant through all stages of it’s life-cycle, you’ll begin seeing this plant everywhere. Which, if you are in a temperate forested area like I am, will indeed be darn near everywhere, on the side of the road, near any forested area.
This is what the plant looks like in the ‘wild’. Though in this case, it’s outside my back door near my planter. No, I didn’t plant it there, it just grew there. I’ll harvest it before it goes to seed this year. This picture was taken in January and shows how big the plant is already having just grown from seed the previous fall and how it’ll bolt up in the spring.
I found a large second year plant last spring that was still in a bushy basal rosette, and brought it into captivity so I could photograph it as it grew.
Here is the plant when it bolted. It did so quite quickly, and grew to a large size very rapidly.
Here is a picture of the close up of the soon-to-be-blooming stem. Notice how the leaves are vastly more arrow shaped versus the original rounded or kidney shaped leaves of the basal rosette.
Also, this plant can grow to a very large size. Here one of the mature basal leaves is almost as big as my hand.
Unfortunately, even though this plant did grow quite large, it didn’t bloom from lack of sunlight in it’s location in my nearly lightless garage, so we’ll have to go back to the wild do show you some blooms.
The older name for the genus is ‘Cruciferae’ “Cross-bearing”. An allusion to the way the flower petals of this genus form a cross. This also makes them very easy to identify when in bloom.
The flowers have four petals in typical mustard fashion. The petals are very strikingly white. It will have six stamen. Four longer and two shorter, like all members of Brassica.
Though you won’t really need that detail to identify this plant in bloom. The arrow shaped leaves and white cross flowers should be enough.
The leaves along the stem are very arrowhead shaped in comparison to the lower basal rosette leaves which tend to be rounded or kidney shaped.
As the plant matures, it gains the very prominent long signature seed pods with tiny black seeds that mustards are famous for, and which in other mustard varieties are made into the common condiment we call, not surprisingly, ‘mustard’.
The plant is prolific. Mostly because it exudes a chemical into the soil that kills off mycorrhiza in the soil as well as most competing plants.  Thus, enabling it so slowly take over. It’s a nasty little bugger. But it’s also delicious when properly prepared. And it’s pure nutritional dynamite.
I like to briefly boil (5 minutes) then fry the leaf greens with something fatty, such as bacon, or with olive oil and then serve over whatever you like. In my case, rice.
The upper several inches of the stem can be made like asparagus. Just snap it off where tender on the stem, and cook the whole thing. Even though it’s called ‘garlic mustard’, I don’t find it to have any real kind of ‘garlic’ taste. Thus, I like to pair mine with some fresh wild garlic greens to spice things up!
The roots are also edible, and quite spicy. Think horseradish, but not quite. Though I haven’t used these for much, they are edible. (I’m not a huge fan of horseradishy flavored things.)
If you eat this plant, many people will thank you. Or at least they would if anyone cared about the forests becoming a monoculture. Eat all you can find, and worry not. Nature will make more.
This plant can really take over, and has done so in many northern areas, such as Pennsylvania. Apparently the seeds need a freezing component to germinate, which would explain why it’s advance south has been somewhat halted.
As far as I have seen, and ever read, there are no toxic lookalikes , but do your homework and research and be sure of the plant you have. It’s pretty hard to misidentify this plant, but I’ve seen it done before.
If you ever mis-identify this plant, it’ll probably be for young Ground Ivy or another of the Mustard family of plants. Maybe even a violet. If you’re drunk. Or don’t know your plants very well. 😉 None of which are harmful and are also edible.
There are also much better ways to control this plant than simply trying to physically eradicate it , and the one I like is perhaps the most simple. Eat more of it! Or start eating it, if you aren’t eating it now. Though I do highly recommend the linked references below for identification purposes.
I don’t typically do references, as I don’t typically write from anything other than my personal experience. I find that to write about things which one does not have direct experience with to be disingenuous, and dangerous, especially where edible and toxic plants are involved. However, I’ve included some references for your further reading enjoyment and education.
1. “Edible Wild Plants” Dr. John Kallas, PhD pps 231 – 248
2. ‘Wildman’ Steve Brill. http://www.wildmanstevebrill.com/Plants.Folder/Garlic%20Mustard.html
3. Janet Van Sloun Larson. Natrual Resource Specialist, City of Minnetonka, Natural Resources Division. http://www.eminnetonka.com/public_works/natural_resources/restoration/documents/garlic_mustard_presentation.pdf
* Also be sure to check out Green Deane Jordan’s site: www.eattheweeds.com It’s my favorite source for all things wild, edible, and delicious