Yes, I said it, garlic mustard as a gourmet food! I firmly believe with some successful rebranding, garlic mustard could be the new seasonal food craze up there with the likes of morel mushrooms or leeks and is MUCH easier to find. Its heart shaped leaves and white flowers carry that garlic smell making them easy to identify. Seen as “the bully of the woodlands” for its ability to take over a forest floor, along with authors, Katrina Blair and Tao Orion, I think its high time to look at this “alien invasive” with new eyes.
Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolate) is a native plant to Europe and North Africia. It was used both as a food and medicinal herb. It was first planted in 1868 as a edible plant in Long Island, New York. From there it spread rapidly across the woodlands of America being found in most all eastern woodlands and into the Great Plains. It has a distinct ability to take over virtually undisturbed areas choking out seedling trees and delicate woodland plants putting it near the top of America’s Most UN-Wanted Invaders list. However, when seen in a new way, garlic mustard is an amazingly healthy food choice.
Karen Stephenson in the blog, Edible Wild Food, writes about the nutritional value of garlic mustard. It is high in vitamins A,C, and E. It also is rich in minerals such as “potassium, calcium, magnesium,selenium, copper, iron and manganese,” many of these lacking in the standard American diet. Part of the Brassicaceae family which is highly prized for their ability to fight cancers, it shares many of the nutritional benefits of some its cousins cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, collards, mustard greens and kale. It has a slight bitter and peppery taste with a distinctive garlic smell and flavor. Sam Thayer, a wild food aficionado, discusses how to harvest garlic mustard in his book, Nature’s Garden, so as to enjoy it at its peak. All parts of the plant are edible but the young leaves before flower or at budding flower and shoots are most often used. Garlic mustard is a biennial plant and can be enjoyed throughout its cycle. It is commonly agreed it tastes best before it goes to flower otherwise it does become very bitter.
Food is not its only strength, it is also a versatile medicinal plant. It was most often used as vulnerary, antiseptic healing ulcers and treating gangrenous wounds. It also had antiasthmatic properties being used in the treatment of asthma and bronchitis. It can be crushed and made into a poultice to relieve the itch of a bug bite and has also been used to improve circulation making it a herb for the heart and vascular system as well. Garlic mustard does contain some cyanide compounds but is water soluble and a good wash and steam will eliminate these compounds most often found in the young first year leaves.
The real joy of garlic mustard is in the eating. It makes a wonderful pesto plant in place of the traditional basil. It can flavor a vinegar for a salad dressing or be in a salad and can be added to any pot green giving it a fabulous garlic flavor. In the little cookbook book, From Pest to Pesto there is a marvelous list of recipes to taste and enjoy. Let’s start a new food craze and make Garlic Mustard the new Spring Gourmet Food! It could help us solve a very invasive problem in a new and tasty way.