Can't beat garlic mustard? Eat it

Chris Young

Over-harvesting of the planet’s food resources always makes headlines.

Ocean fisheries are a prime example when they become depleted because more fish are harvested than can be replenished by natural reproduction.

But when it comes to picking garlic mustard, natural resources managers would say simply, “Go for it.” Call it making the best of a bad situation.

Garlic mustard is a potted herb brought to the United States from Europe in the 1800s. Like other mustards, it produces countless tiny seeds. It has been spreading slowly since then, but has been picking up speed in recent years. It has overrun some woodlands and is squeezing out spring wildflowers.

Like a lot of invasive species, it can get the upper hand quickly. Getting rid of it is tough, and even pulling it doesn’t always do the trick.

Prescribed burning can set it back if the fire is hot enough, and herbicides must be used carefully to avoid killing desirable plants that may be growing right alongside.

For those who treasure spring wildflowers and hate what garlic mustard is doing to woodlands, there is a simple, tasty option.

You can eat it.

When crushed, new leaves smell of garlic. The leaves can be used in pesto — that’s the most common use — but other recipes are out there, too.

Picking garlic mustard for the occasional pesto and angel hair pasta meal won’t solve the invasive species problem, but it might help raise awareness of a serious problem facing those fighting garlic mustard.

Not that many years ago, garlic mustard was uncommon enough for Ben Dolbeare to get out of his car and take a look.

“I can remember a number of years ago when I saw a small population of it along a road near Washington Park,” says Dolbeare, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources invasive plant species project manager. “It was a pretty plant and it was new to me. I was kind of in awe of it as a new plant for me, but now I see it just about everywhere.”

Invading plants usually have one or more advantages over the natives. They may be introduced into ecosystems that already are under stress, or the insects and diseases that kept them in check back home are not found here.

Sometimes there are other weapons in the arsenal.

“Number one, it gives off a chemical from the root system that inhibits the growth of other plants,” Dolbeare says. “That’s known as allelopathy. One of the reasons the native plants do not do well or disappear from a dense garlic mustard stand is for that reason.”

And the multitude of small seeds are spread when they get caught up in the hair of an animal or stuck in the cleats of a hiker’s boots. Even those fighting garlic mustard are at risk of carrying it to a new location.

Susan Dees is a biologist with the Illinois Department of Transportation. She has tried making pesto out of garlic mustard but says it won’t replace basil anytime soon.

“I made pesto out of it using my usual pesto recipe,” she says. “I have another recipe that is a little more gourmet, but I haven’t made that one yet.”

Dees has first-hand knowledge of the havoc garlic mustard can cause. She has been pulling and trying to kill it on some woods owned by her family in southern Illinois. The seeds are hard to kill even when the plants are covered with a black tarp and left in the sun. Garlic mustard sprouts in the compost pile with glee. And new sprouts appeared on one parkway where yard waste bags full of it was placed last fall.

She says new leaves can be used on sandwiches and in salads or in place of sprouts.

“It had a delicate garlic taste,” she says.

Those who want to try to pick it should be sure to have permission from the property owner. Proper identification is important so as not to damage the good plants growing nearby.

While picking garlic mustard occasionally won’t solve the invasive species problem, it will help the public learn to identify the plant and see how widespread it really is.

Garlic mustard recipes are from the Mid-Atlantic Exotic Pest Council, www.ma-eppc.org/morerecipes.html.

Pesto Petiolata

3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 garlic clove

2 tablespoons pine nuts or walnut pieces

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese, about 1 ounce

4 cups garlic mustard leaves (Alliaria petiolata) or 2 cups garlic mustard with 2 cups basil leaves

Place all of the ingredients except the basil in a blender or food processor. Blend until smooth, then add the garlic mustard and/or basil a handful at a time. Blend until all of the greens are incorporated and the pesto is smooth. Makes about 1 cup.

Stir-Fried Buds With Garlic Mustard and Mushrooms

1 tablespoon roasted sesame oil

1 tablespoon sesame seeds

1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

1 cup mixed wild mushrooms (any kind)

2 cups of 1/2- to 1-inch daylily (Hemerocallis fulva) buds

2 cups garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata)

In a large heavy skillet, heat the oil, sesame seeds, and ginger. Lower the heat to medium and add the mushrooms and daylily buds. Cover 5 minutes. Uncover and turn the heat up to medium high. Add the garlic mustard and stir until wilted and the mushrooms are done, 3 to 5 minutes. Makes 2 to 4 servings. Note: Add chicken or shrimp and serve over wild rice for a main course.

State Journal-Register