Like Garlic Mustard? YOU Eat It

There’s an allelopath on the loose in my town, committing crimes in broad daylight, and I’ve been spending a good part of this quarantine handing out vigilante justice.

It’s edible, as many people have reminded me. They say steam it. They say chop it fine and use it to replace lemon and parsley. They say flatten it on cookie sheets and toast it then sauté it. They all say make a pesto out of it. We’re talking about people with a steady supply of it right outside their windows, and I don’t see any of them walking around with a colander picking its leaves.

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Alliaria petiolata.

I’m talking about garlic mustard. Jack-by-the-hedge. Poor man’s mustard. Alliaria petiolata. “Alliaria” means it resembles an allium, but’s in the brassica family. As in “brass balls.” Its olfactory bait and switch is just one of many duplicitous things about this plant.

They say it was imported in the 1800s from Europe, where it’s been used for centuries, for food and as a diuretic – and where it has 69 kinds of herbivorous insects that eat it, that we don’t have here. Without these controls, it takes over. It’s considered one of the worst invasive plants in temperate forests across North America, and my little corner of New York state has it bad.

In the warm days of April, garlic mustard shoots and leaves are among the first to peep out through the forest floor. You see it and coo, “Spring!” like when the puffballs come in Amarcord. When the trees blossom, garlic mustard’s already shin-high. Some of the bigger ones are waist-high when it flowers in mid-May. It seems to prefer the shade but thrives in the wide open sun too – though I have noticed that in the sun it seems less monopolistic, more able to share the soil.

“Able to share”? It’s also allelopathic, meaning “suffering mutually.” More specifically, it produces chemicals that harm other plants, which is easy to imagine when you’re picking it. Its stem, when mature, is purplish on the bottom, the color of the rutabaga. When you pull it out by its main root, which I’ve done hundreds of times lately, you smell something like synthetic horseradish extract.

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Biennials, the first year they look like this.

Is this the exact chemical that inhibits other plants? I don’t know. I do know that the New York State webpage devoted to garlic mustard says, “Herbivores such as deer and woodchucks only remove up to 2% of the leaf area in a stand of garlic mustard. This level of herbivory is ineffective in controlling reproduction or survival of garlic mustard.”

Aside from loving the word “herbivory” – Scrabble opponents, take note! – it’s worth remembering that deer and woodchucks eat everything. Plant nurseries around here offer deer resistant selections, and they munch them down like snow peas at a salad bar. If they don’t eat garlic mustard, that’s telling you something.

When I’ve spent all afternoon yanking horseradish extract pods out of the ground, the last thing I want to do is pull the heart-shaped leaves off the stem so I can say I have locally foraged chimichurri in my fridge – that I never actually eat. Because here’s the dirty secret of the locavore movement: some of this stuff tastes like weeds! And I would put garlic mustard in that category.

A few weeks ago, one unseasonably cool evening, I was bored and walked up the road. I was admiring a neighbor’s garden. I’d never met him, but he came outside with two cans of beer, which is not out of character for how people are behaving here lately. He and his wife are herbalists – I knew this already, because it’s a small town – and conversation came around to plants. I pointed to the garlic mustard next to his shed. “Do you eat that stuff?”

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A roadside ditch in High Falls, NY, overrun.

He leaned forward, like the ramps might hear him. “Such a pain in the ass.”

I discovered this myself last  last spring – my first one here since leaving the city – and had some friends coming over, so I spent an afternoon picking and washing garlic mustard. I used it to make a saag, a versatile dish I’ve made many times, that works with any green: chard, mustard, kale, etc. I went heavy on the butter and put toasted cashews on top, and it tasted…edible.

“Artisinal isn’t always good,” as a food writer once told me. I would add, “Foraged isn’t always tasty.” And any time you’re told more than once that something is “good in pesto,” that’s like a root veg that’s “good in soup,” or something like a wine region “known for its rosé.” It’s something that’s edible when its flavor is covered, or it’s known for more misses than hits in its hit-and-miss vintages.

The First Agricultural revolution happened 10,000 years ago. If I promise not to make an extra trip to buy it, and to compost the stems afterward, will you forgive me for just eating spinach?

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If the deer don’t eat it….

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