Words cannot say how much I love Garlic Mustard. Not just because of its velvety emerald coloured leaves, not because it is one the most versatile nutritious greens you can possibly eat, not because it is one of oldest food plants and possibly the oldest “spice”, and not because its green garlicky aroma fills me salivatory delight.
Mostly I love it because my heart just goes out to its underdog status. Today Alliaria petiolata is vilified, hunted down and eradicated as an invasive weed – and almost no one remembers its many culinary virtues. Which is a shame because it makes such a prolific, nutritious, tasty food source. Archaeobotanical research demonstrates we’ve been enjoying its mustardy garlicky flavour since the Neolithic!
And this delicious bread dipping oil is a really easy way to enjoy its tender spring leaves. It’s perfect served with crusty rounds of a fresh sourdough baguette, is yummy dribbled over french fries, on a warm (or cold) potato salad, and mixed with cottage or ricotta cheese it rolls nicely into lasagna noodles for a super quick dinner.
Every part of the garlic mustard plant is edible, from roots, leaves, flowers to its young seed pods, and a 2007 study shows it provides a rainbow of nutrients, vitamins, minerals and omega-3 fatty acids, chlorophyll, enzymes and fiber. As a Brassicaceae it also features the medicinal benefits of this family, i.e. helping to prevent oxidative stress, stimulate immune system, decrease the risk of cancers, and reduce proliferation of cancer cells.
Its British folk name of Jack-by-the-hedge and Jack-in-the-bush reflects that it was often found growing in and around the hedges and hedgerows of old Europe. Used as a pot herb in soups, stews, pottages, as a sauce for roasted meats and dried as a flavouring or spice, it was introduced to the new world by European settlers.
Garlic mustard continued to be eaten until just few decades ago when its prolific invasion into our forests began to raise concerns. Studies began to suggest that where garlic mustard spread – biodiversity dropped. Believed to outcompete indigenous species in the “understories” of forests, it began to be aggressively eliminated (often with herbicides) in order to protect native plants and their ecosystems.
Today more recent research is suggesting (and I fully realize how heretical it is to say this) that perhaps we’ve been a little shortsighted in our haste to dispatch this plant. In his book Invasive Plant Medicine: The Ecological Benefits and Healing Abilities of Invasives Timothy Scott writes” contrary to the common verbiage that trumpets garlic mustards harm to surrounding life-forms, a study conducted by the department of biology at Boston University found that garlic mustard could actually provide a benefit to northeastern U.S. forests. Garlic mustard was found to leave soil “consistently and significantly higher in the soil nutrients that present conditions for optimal plant growth.” And he points to a wide variety of studies (like this one) which have found “little evidence that garlic mustard was negatively affecting plant species.”
Fears that garlic mustard overtakes and colonizes ecosystems is also being called into question. This study discovered that after a certain period, garlic mustard populations “begin to decline and reach a balance with native species that re-colonize invaded areas…This is consistent with other recent studies and indicates that, despite earlier claims to the contrary, A. petiolata seems to be more a product than an agent of change in eastern North American deciduous forests.”
Today governments (municipal, provincial and federal), the Invasive Plants Council of BC, The Coastal Invasive Species Committee The Nature Conservancy of Canada are all diligently at work removing Garlic Mustard.The Pacific Northwest Garlic Mustard Working Group, is a collaboration between Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Alaska, and their list of recommended “controls” include a smorgasboard of herbicides including glypsophate (aka Round up).
But is it working? This study found that “understory species richness were lower in the herbicide and pull/herbicide treatments…treatment of garlic mustard with hand-pulling, herbicide, and/or scorching is ineffective in reducing garlic mustard abundance” and negatively impacts native understory species.
Of course these studies are far from conclusive, and it may be awhile before we get it all sorted out. But it seems to me that attempting to control what we believe are Mother Natures “mistakes” with repeated applications of herbicides threatens the long term well-being of our forests (and all the creatures that live there) far more than garlic mustard ever could. So I can’t help wonder if – rather than blitzing our green spaces with chemicals – we wouldn’t all be better off just eating garlic mustard? Maybe we could hold Garlic Mustard Festivals like these folks instead?
Check out this amazing sounding Sweet Pineapple and Garlic Mustard Salsa, which was the winning recipe from The Wilderness Centres Garlic Mustard Cook Off. Good news is, the sky may the limit when it comes to cooking with garlic mustard! You can use the leaves and flowers in salads, sauces, pesto, soups, pastas, savoury pies and tarts. The roots can be pickled, made into a horseradish like condiment or used as a root vegetable. The ground seeds make a fabulous mustard sauce (popular in France) and the dried greens can be made into a paste like wasabi.
And while it is often considered a bitter plant I find it less bitter than lets say, dandelion. I love to saute garlic mustards with olive oil, sea salt and lemon and serve as a green side dish, toss into mashed potatoes (see my Colcannon recipe) and to create nutrient rich spicy herbal vinegars and herbal salts, I’m still planning to try this intriguing recipe for roulade, made with the blanched and chopped leaves.
Garlic mustard is one of the first spring greens and here in Victoria I’m lucky to begin harvesting leaves in February! Garlic mustard is a biennial, and both first and second year plants spring leaves are basal with a wrinkly velvety leaf with a somewhat scalloped edge.
In the second year stalks shoot up, and the leaves along stems tend to become smaller and triangular in shape. These produce flower in spring, small cross-shaped four petalled white flowers in dense clusters. When blooming is complete, plants produce upright fruits that release seeds in mid-summer.
But finally to positively make sure you have garlic mustard – all you need do is crush the foliage and a clear unmistakable aroma of garlic will emerge. But if you don’t smell garlic, leave it alone, you may have a look-a-like. And of course, never eat anything that you’re not 110% sure of!
This dipping oil is one of my favourite ways to enjoy garlic mustard’s fresh spring flavour. It is delightfully easy to make and I’m sure once you try it you’ll understand why garlic mustard has been such a historically beloved plant! And maybe you’ll find yourself attending or even organizing a Garlic Mustard Festival soon!
Garlic Mustard & Olive Oil Bread Dip
- 2 cup of leaves (and blossoms if available)
- 1 cup of olive oil (and 3 extra tablespoons)
- 2 tablespoon of lemon juice
- 1 tsp. of sea salt
- 3-4 tablespoons of parmesan cheese (or more if you’d like!)
- 1 clove garlic (optional if you want it extra garlicky)
- Place all your ingredients and half a cup of olive in a food processor. Whirr (blend) to a fine texture, then add another half cup of oil. Pulse till well mixed.
- Pour into a large, clean jar. Pour over your three tablespoons of additional olive oil to seal off any air from getting into your mixture – keeping it fresher longer.
- Store in the fridge until you’re ready to serve. Just remember you’ll need to let warm to room temperature first – otherwise it will be a bit waxy.