When I walk through the maple hardwood forests of Minnesota and Wisconsin in the Spring, saying hi to all the plants I haven’t seen for a year, the nettles, cress, waterleaf, ramps, spring beauty, sochan, and all the others, I get excited–finding them is like seeing an old friend. Not so with garlic mustard.
Unlike most of the foraging posts about edible plants on this site, this post is less about eating, and more about removal, eradication, or destruction by napalm. Garlic mustard is not a friendly food plant, it’s a scourge, and a very real threat to the spring ephemerals like ramps, toothwort, spring beauty, trout lily and other plants I treasure, so, while you might see the occasional recipe using garlic mustard here, I will publish it through spiteful clenched teeth, with a heavy dose of vitriolic seasoning.
An Invasive Noxious Plant
Garlic mustard is not a native plant in the United States, and, knowing how most of my peers in Europe think of it, the most likely scenario of it’s arrival was probably brought over by Europeans as a food plant, like watercress, and plenty of garden ornamentals like buckthorn or creeping bellflower that quickly went feral and spread.
Watercress is one thing. It may spread, but it’s contained to water, and, if someone is really dedicated, they might be able to remove it, and keep it gone, all by themselves, depending on the size of the body of water it inhabits. Not so with garlic mustard. Garlic mustard comes up quickly in the spring, encroaching on native plants and eventually crowding them out. It’s horribly aggressive, a prolific seeder, and, to me, amounts to nothing less than a woodland plague for anyone who values native plants in North America, including the Department of Natural Resources.
Naturalized in Europe, not the U.S.
Now, friends of mine from Europe, when they see garlic mustard in the United States tend to get excited to see a familiar food plant–they don’t usually see it as the plague others might. The reason is that in Europe, garlic mustard has it’s place in the food chain, so to speak. Over there, where it’s a native plant, it’s widely appreciated as a food plant, and it doesn’t spread as virulently as it does in North America, since it’s held in check by other plants, having formed a natural sort of equilibrium. Over time in North America, garlic mustard will eventually become naturalized, and become part of the local flora, but the devastation it will cause along the way has the potential to brutalize and possibly endanger or eradicate other, indigenous, rare and valued North American plants. Rest assured, the sort of natural balance we need in North America to control garlic mustard will never be seen in either of our lifetimes.
If being an aggressive, invasive plant that can crowd out native flora wasn’t enough, garlic mustard has an extra weapon it uses against other plants. Allellopathy (as far as I know garlic mustards allellopathic properties are only suspected) is where a plant produces chemicals or compounds that can help inhibit the growth of other plants in the area. That, combined with it’s prolific seeding, spells bad news for native plants.
Removal / Management
Some of my peers may say things like “eat the invasives” or be an “invasive eater”–just eat the garlic mustard and celebrate it as the food plant it is. That’s all well and good, and I appreciate the sentiment, but honestly, while plucking a few garlic mustard leaves here and there to post on your Instagram might make you look like you’re helping, that mentality is more delusionally vain than anything, and you’re more than likely not going to make an actual difference in the polyculture of your local woods. Y’hear?!
I don’t condone using herbicides, but, with garlic mustard and buckthorn, I’ll be honest, the trade off between killing the plant using chemicals to restore native flora is a seductive ethical choice I’ve considered. It is very, very hard to remove or control garlic mustard in any way shape or form by human hands alone. But, with careful, regular, attention, it can be managed. Note that I say managed, and not cured.
Just like burdock, garlic mustard is a biennial, meaning each plant goes through two years of growth. First year plants will appear as teeny tiny sprouts–nearly imperceptible unless you’re looking for them. Second year plants are the ones that will grow tall flower stalks, creating seeds to spread the plant–those are the ones you must pull.
To manage garlic mustard without Round Up, you’re going to need a few things: a few friends, a few afternoons, a few years, and most importantly, specific timing. Here’s a few helpful bullets.
- Most importantly, pull the garlic mustard BEFORE IT MAKES SEEDS. If you don’t, your efforts will stop some seeds from spreading, but it will be far less effective than if you can catch it beforehand. If you pick it late, expect to have to remove double or more the next year. If you’re not familiar, garlic mustard seeds are similar to mustard seeds, and are borne in long, thin pods along the flower stalk.
- Organize garlic mustard pulls, and bring as many friends as you can. Promise your helpers food and alcohol for a better showing.
- Pull each garlic mustard plant up ROOT AND ALL. Just clipping leaves won’t do anything.
- Do not compost garlic mustard or it could spread by seed. Put the garlic mustard in black trashbags and allow to die, painfully slow, in the sun. You could also incinerate it, or otherwise call your local priest to excise it.
- Return occasionally to check on the progress of the plants and notice new seedlings, or colonies that were missed.
- Return the next year and repeat to remove second year plants. Then return the next year.
With regular pulling by groups of dedicated people, you can make a difference in your local woods., and eventually, with regular pulling, you can and will deplete the seed bank held by the colony of plants. I’ll be honest though, the battle against garlic mustard is a slow, arduous slog, and it will not be over quickly, so if you spot it on your property or nearby, be wary. If you want to control it and keep a healthy biologically diverse woodland, you’re going to have a new hobby for the next few years.