Garlic Mustard: Springtime Invasive Plant
Garlic and mustard are staples in my house. We love the intense bold flavors. But garlic mustard, now that is a whole other beast. It’s a plant, Alliaria petiolate, and it’s a highly invasive and destructive plant that is blooming right now.
I seem to be seeing garlic mustard, and other invasive species of plants, wherever I go. This week I spotted it along the edges of roads in my neighborhood and, unfortunately, we also have it on the edge of our back field. I pulled quite a bit of it last year, but it is back now — thankfully less than last year. So, what is this plant and how did it get here?
Garlic mustard was originally imported from Europe and Asia in the 19th century as an herb and salad green. The leaves taste like garlic and can be eaten raw or boiled. Unfortunately, it is very aggressive and forms dense clusters, growing along roads and in moist, rich forest habitats. It is now found throughout The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and its sale is prohibited in all New England states except Rhode Island. It is also found all over the Northeast, the Midwest and Northwest of the United States.
The flowers have four white petals, and the leaves are triangular and heart-shaped with toothed edges. The plant takes two years to set seeds and a single plant can produce more than 7,000 seeds before it dies. The seeds can live up to five years in the soil before germinating.
The problem with garlic mustard is that it takes over the habitat where it grows by emerging before our native plants and out competing them for sunlight and soil nutrients. When the native species begin to appear, the garlic mustard has already leafed out and gotten a head start on the growing season. This year it flowered in our back field the first week of May, after the dandelions but before the asters. If that was not enough, this tenacious plant also produces a toxin in its roots that inhibits the growth of other nearby plants.
Obviously, we want our native plants to survive, but we may not always recognize the key role they play in the entire ecosystem. Our local plants are food for native birds and insects. More and more research is emerging that invasives simply do not and cannot provide the nutrition needed by our local insects and animals, and the results ripple out to the entire ecosystem. You can understand why stopping invasives from continuing to spread is important.
One of the more important goals in getting rid of garlic mustard is to prevent the seeds from developing and spreading. You’ll need to remove the plant each year until the seed “bank” in the soil is depleted. This may take a few years since the seeds can live in the soil for up to five years. A common way to remove the plant is by pulling and disposing of it. Thankfully, it pulls up very easily, especially after a rain. Make sure you get the whole plant and, if possible, pull it before it seeds out. If it has set seed, do not compost it. Bag it up and put it out with the trash. It is also suggested you clean off boots and clothes to help prevent the spread of the seeds.
About the only redeemable quality of the plant is that it is edible (that’s the reason it was brought over to America in the first place). The leaves are best eaten when the plant is young and less bitter. It is suggested to cook the older plants. Please remember to pull up any plants you’re not going to eat.
I have had some success in repeatedly pulling the garlic mustard on my property. I know it will take a few years, but patience and persistence will pay off in the long run.
For landowners in our region, being watchful for invasive plant species is a constant process, especially in the spring as the world about us turns green again. Control and remediation options vary for different invasive plants, and while a judicious application of herbicides may be the quick solution, the physical process of “harvesting” garlic mustard on a sunny May day can provide a more pleasant experience. You don’t even have to eat it to enjoy the harvest.
We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. I hope you’ll join me and many others as we care for it, enjoy it and pass it on.
Information for this column was sourced through the UCONN Invasive Plant Working Group. Their website is: https://cipwg.uconn.edu/ I highly recommend this resource for very helpful information on the many invasive plant species we encounter in The Last Green Valley, and beyond.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He has lived in and explored the region for over 40 years and can be reached at email@example.com
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