Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is an annual and sometimes biennial herb in the mustard family that was introduced to North America in the mid-19th century from Europe, where the plant has been used for food and medicine for centuries. Also known as Penny Hedge, Jack-by-the-hedge, Hedge Garlic, Jack-in-the-bush, Poor Man's Mustard and Sauce-alone, the plant is easily identified by its erect growth habit; alternating heart-shaped, serrated leaves; small, star-like white flowers and, of course, the garlicky aroma released when the leaves are bruised.
Unfortunately, garlic mustard is considered a noxious weed by most people – and they would be correct. It is, in fact, a significantly invasive plant that has aggressively spread through woodlands and undisturbed areas from its point of introduction in Long Island, New York to virtually every state in the country. While the plant is certainly a prolific self-seeder, the primary reason for its success lies in the fact that it is a non-native species. In other words, it’s not on the menu for North American wildlife, insects or fungi so it has no predators. Sadly, the plant has displaced several native species of wildflowers, such as bloodroot and wild ginger, from large tracts of land in some places. In addition, chemicals in the plant toxic to the larvae of certain North American butterfly species that deposit their eggs on its leaves.
Fortunately, the best organic control is to pull the plant – root and all. And guess what? The wildlife of North America may ignore this herb, but people find it pretty tasty. The young leaves are excellent tossed with salad greens or quickly sautéed or steamed as a vegetable. As an added bonus, the long s-shaped taproot has the characteristics of horseradish and may be chopped or grated and used as such.
More Interesting Things to Know…
Garlic mustard can survive cold temperatures because its leaves contain chemicals that reduce the freezing point of water.
Each plant produces hundreds of seeds, which are spread by water, wind and people.
Each plant produces one central stem, but will fork off into multiple stems if cut, stepped on or driven over.
The juice of the leaves is antiseptic and was once used to treat wounds. (Good to know if you cut yourself while foraging in the woods!)
How to Use Garlic Mustard
Add raw to salads with other mixed greens. The young leaves that appear in early spring are best. Like dandelion, older leaves have a bitter quality.