Leda McDonald describes the value of wild edible garlic mustard for health and ecology.
Following the bleak winter months, even the brown leftovers of snowbanks look appetizing to a forager of wild edibles. Dedicated eaters who have searched for green leaves under mulch and snow delight in the abundance of growth that occurs as soon as the temperature climbs above freezing. The harvest of wild weeds can begin well before the first garden vegetables sprout.
My favourite food among these early edibles is easy to recognize and overabundant. Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is an invasive species that has profoundly changed North America’s forest ecology. Most introduced European species, like Plantago major, which is also called “White Man’s Footprint,” overtake the open spaces cleared by colonialists, but wither in healthy native forests. Garlic mustard is unique in favouring shaded areas. It spreads by shedding hundreds of seeds per plant, forming carpets which compete for scarce light and choke out native vegetation. Its anti-fungal properties alter the soil, killing beneficial fungi which form associations with tree roots. Tree growth can be severely inhibited by the loss of these micorrhizal fungi.
Knowing the negative effects of garlic mustard’s invasion, it helps to remember that it was originally introduced as a food crop. It provides free local nutrition all year long. It is listed in many herbals as having warming properties and stimulating the digestion; a perfect reward for an afternoon of foraging.
Identifying garlic mustard for the first time in winter and early spring is not easy, but it is possible. It is best to search along fence lines, empty lots, and the edges of forests or parks. The internet can supply images for positive identification. Last fall’s dead stalks indicate young leaves underneath. The stalks are 2-3 feet tall, with thin brown pods of 1-3 inches in length that resemble those of the mustard family. Summer leaves, which are 3-5 inches in diameter, die off in cold weather. The younger, smaller leaves are dormant but green all winter. They are kidney-shaped with prominent venation and grow on round, hairless stems. Their most unmistakable feature is the garlicky smell they emit when crushed or chewed.
The first green leaves of spring are the most delicious. They may be eaten raw in salad or cooked like spinach. Sauces, stews, spanakopita, quiche, stir-frys and many other dishes can be adapted to include garlic mustard. The Patapsco Heritage Greenway state park in Maryland hosts an annual garlic mustard cooking challenge and publishes the winning recipes on its website: www.patapscoheritagegreenway.org/garlic07/index.html
As the plant ages, its leaves grow increasingly bitter. In June, the white, four-petalled flowers can garnish salads and pasta dishes. In July and August, when the leaves have lost their taste, the seeds can be harvested (carefully, so as not to spread them) and used as a spice similar to mustard seeds. Any time of the year, the root can be harvested and blended into a sumptuous horseradish-like puree.
Garlic mustard is the all-season solution to nutrient-deficient, industrially-grown produce, and it may be invading your backyard. Both your health and local ecology benefit from the harvest of this versatile and plentiful food.
Leda McDonald can frequently be found in the greenest parts of Kingston stealing weeds for lunch. She has no conventional training, but has been supplementing her diet with wild foods since childhood.