When March comes, one of the first spring greens that emerge after the snow melts, is Garlic Mustard. It has dark green, textured leaves that can withstand repeated light and heavy frosts and the occasional late spring snow storm. I start cutting it for salads as soon as it is only 1/2 inch above soil level---which is not a very respectful way to treat a plant. Waiting until it is 3-4 inches tall is a better way of protecting a plant's ability to flourish and recover quickly after repeated cuttings. BUT......as tasty, nutritious, medicinal and a really nice sight after a white winter....Garlic Mustard is on most official Invasive Plant lists, which spend more time telling you how to kill and eradicate it than to eat it. So, as with many things in life, there is a good AND bad side to some plants--and this is one.
I had spent years nibbling on Garlic Mustard first thing every spring long before I even knew it was a dreaded invasive plant. It has a fresh garlic taste, is loaded with immune building nutrients, some iron, sulphur and is mildly diuretic--a perfect Spring Tonic type of plant and a welcome salad addition. But having been brought here by settlers (like the Dandelion) for food and medicinal purposes, it has no real predators in the way of animals, diseases, fungi..........and so it spreads, taking over indigenous plant territories and wiping out food sources for some butterfly species and insects and birds. At the same time, it can make soil inhospitable to other plants.
For those of us who make herbal medicines and are very careful to protect plants--especially to maintain an ongoing source of medicinal material, over- harvesting does not come easily. In the case of Garlic Mustard, however, it seems we can really use as much as we can harvest, make medicines, eat it all spring/summer and not feel guilty, but instead, feel as though we are doing a service to our native plants by keeping it in check. But, because it is such a healing and useful plant, in spite of its noxious reputation, I am very grateful for its appearance on my property, I talk to it, thank it and gently take my daily, unrelenting cuttings. Garlic mustard is a gift....and on my property, I am its benevolent dictator.
In Europe and Asia, where Garlic Mustard calls home, there are many species that depend upon it for food and so, has remained a contained plant. Here, it is opportunistic and after being brought by settlers, began to spread voraciously as farming began to decline in the Northeast. Mustards like untilled soils, so as farms gave way to fields and young woods, they spread as well. It has a job of improving the soil, so where it is found, is previously depleted soil, which it is trying to repair. Another caution, however, is to avoid in in pastures of milking animals--unless you like your milk to taste of garlic!
This family of plants used to be classified as Cruciferae--Latin for "cross", as the flowers are 4 petaled. Now, it has been re-classified as a Brassicaceae. However, this species should be distinguished from black and white mustards--Brassica nigra and Sinapis nigra, though their attributes, in terms of medicine are similar and all parts of all mustards are edible.
As a medicinal edible, Garlic Mustard can give the same protections as actual garlic, with a milder taste. In any recipe calling for garlic, feel free to use it instead. Either steamed as a spring green, eaten raw in salads (or nibbled as you take your first spring walks) or used in prepared foods such as homemade Mayo, in a Sauce for meats or veggies or as a basil substitute for a spring PESTO, Garlic mustard is delicious. I have tried it eating the root as you would use horseradish, I have pickled the green seed pods along with cukes and other veggies, I have used the dried seeds in pickle brine and sprinkled in breads. Crushed seeds can be added to butter as well. Collecting the seeds is fun to do--OCCASIONALLY. It is very tedious, you need a huge stand of plants to get a usable amount for a long term supply and there is a lot of seed cleaning to be done, so you are not eating dried pod along with the seed. However, if you are inclined, spend an afternoon collecting the dry seed pods in a paper bag--at least to help control the spread of the plant. You can grind them into mustard by adding a bit of vinegar and herbs for flavoring---again, something you probably will not do often, but it is an experience of where your foods come from and what goes into their making. What do you get for your trouble? All parts of this plant are extrememly nutritious, containing Vits. A, Bs, C and the flower buds have protein. Garlic mustard contains glycosides, sulphur, iron, which build and tone the body and increase immunity.
It used to be said of Mustards, in general, that they "Revive the spirits", "expell heaviness", "Clarify the blood and cure weak stomachs". This plant was used for colds, lethargy, poor circulation and heart disease, to help ward off illness caused by spoiling meats (and to disguise the flavor!), topically used as a poultice for gangrene or ulcers....and to rid oneself of LICE. That is a nice well rounded plant!!
The Doctrine of Signatures for this plant are its triangular or heart shaped leaves--which can be interpreted metaphorically (as in lifting the spirits and creating a lighteness of heart)or in a more prosaic sense as it does act upon the circulatory system at all levels of dysfunction......being used as a Vit C source to increase the strength of the capillaries and veins... up to aiding with congestive heart failure. Its four petaled flower also indicates a balance in the plant--meaning it is non-toxic and a tonic rather than a harsh medicine. A long taproot indicates its strenghtening abilities and its function of collecting minerals from the soil--which can then be consumed by us.
Where to Find It:
Look for Garlic Mustard in what you know to be poor soils. It can be in shady semi-shady places or full sun, but almost always in "Between" places----those places where field is starting to turn to wooded areas, damper areas near streams. My garlic mustard has its favorite spots and grows profusely there, but then stops its spread immediately upon hitting cultivated soil--like my gardens. This is not a plant you can transplant into your garden, so if you find some growing wild, you can invite it onto your property, but put it in an untilled area, away from any native wildflowers/weeds you enjoy. And...if you introduce it, you must then take on the responsibility of controlling it.
I find Garlic mustard to be one of my spring favorites--always a treat to spot the first sprouts and a welcome, warm addition to salads, but also acknowledge its unwelcome advances. But it is here, so use it responsibly, but also with reverance and joy. If you can't beat it, EAT it!!
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