Garlic mustard is an invasive species that can be found throughout the US. It enjoys moist, shady areas but can grow just about anywhere, displacing native species. It is one of the first plants to appear after winter and it may release chemicals that inhibit the growth of other plants.

Finding and Identifying Garlic Mustard

Garlic mustard can be found along the edges of forests, along fencerows and in shady waste areas. The plants appear early in the spring with a basal rosette of serrated heart-shaped leaves. It looks a bit like violets before they bloom at this point and has confused me in the past. Garlic mustard smells like garlic and violets do not. But violets are also edible, so no big deal if you eat one by accident.

The plant mature quickly, sending up a flower stalk fringed with alternating serrated heart-shaped leaves that are smaller and more pointy near the top and larger near the bottom. The flowers appear in clusters near the top. The unopened flower buds resemble a tiny, loose broccoli cluster, they are closely related, and they are equally tasty. The flowers have four white petals arranged in an equal-armed cross.

If in doubt, give it a sniff. The entire plant smells of garlic and there are no similar plants that have both the smell and the look of garlic mustard in the same plant.


Harvesting Garlic Mustard

Since garlic mustard is an invasive species, the usual wildcrafting rules do not apply.  Tear it up, roots and all, as much as you can find.  It is, of course, important that you have permission from the landowner and that, if you are planning to eat it, you only harvest garlic mustard from soil you know is clean of contaminants.

Eating Garlic Mustard

Garlic mustard is edible, but it does contain a small amount of cyanide. This isn’t actually unusual in foods; almonds and spinach also contain cyanide. The amount in garlic mustard isn’t enough to cause problems unless you eat huge quantities of the plant, but to be safe, you may wish to cook your greens before you eat them, as heat breaks down the toxin.

Garlic mustard is a bitter green. It tastes a bit like kale with a hint of chives and a bitter finish. It can be used pretty much any way you use other greens, like mustard, spinach, or kale. I like it cooked with potatoes. It is also lovely in soup.


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