Curious what the garlic mustard greens taste like? We found out at the edible invasives potluck and talk May 30… best I could tell, they add just a little garlicky taste but don’t outshine their carriers – for example, a garlic mustard pesto using olive oil and cheese is going to taste more like olive oil and cheese than a garlic mustard biscuit which is going to taste like a biscuit, yummy with honey butter.
But the greens are full of good nutrients, and I am now curious enough to see if I can score some for salad or cooked greens
in the style of collard or beet greens. So it’s still on my bucket list to help out at a “pull” sponsored by Friends of the Mississippi River (FMR) or other organizations, where volunteers remove the plants by hand, roots and all, if they can.
“Invasorism,” speaker FMR ecologist Alex Roth said, is foraging, living off the land, with an aim to get rid of species that are so aggressive they disrupt diversity of the forests or prairies. Brought here from Eastern Europe or Western Asia initially for food or medicinal purposes, garlic mustard is one such plant that has multiplied without its natural enemies since it first showed up in Long Island, New York in 1868.
FMR and others are testing various methods of natural control, such as repeat pulling for five years or more (since seeds can lie dormant for several years), and pulls that are accompanied by reintroducing native plants. FMR is testing the best timing for these methods. It’s generally agreed the youngest leaves taste the best, and the earlier the plants are harvested, the less likely any unused plants will flower and seed.
In his talk, Roth made a distinction between non-native species, which are simply introduced to an area where they didn’t exist before, and invasives, which “cause ecological or economic harm.” He said, “There are native species that can be invasive, especially in prairies.”
In the world of plants, “there are drivers of change, and there are passengers of change. Garlic mustard is a backseat driver. It needs help to get in, but once it’s in, it takes over,” Roth said. It is a “cascade that simplifies forest systems.” A dense forest normally harbors hundreds of interdependent creatures.
A garlic mustard seed will find a disturbed area such as a road at the edge of a forest. As it grows, it changes the nutrient cycling by first outcompeting other species for light (it can grow to shoulder height). It favors earthworms, which are themselves non-native. Garlic mustard produces chemicals toxic to predator insects, and to the fungi which normally provide nutrient pathways for all other plants, microbes and insects. These toxins eventually even stunt tree growth, giving the garlic mustard more light in which to spread.
Art and conversation
When participants first arrived at the Water Bar, 2518 Central Avenue NE, for the potluck, we gravitated to art-making, tracing leaves and flowers of dandelions, garlic mustard, and other invasives onto silk screen material and painting screen-block liquid around them. The screens dried during dinner and then, bellies full and minds processing, the printing began. Each participant could take home a handkerchief printed with their plant. The screens will someday be used to illustrate an invasive species cookbook.
The group, about 16 people, was all female, and ranged in ages, interests and places of residence. One asked about lamb’s quarters, which used to be popular for forager salads but now has been almost eliminated by agricultural chemicals. Another asked about foraging groups; Roth mentioned one specific to mushrooms and a Foraging Minnesota group, and Botanical Wanderings, on Facebook.
Robin, from Northeast Minneapolis by way of northern Minnesota, commented that “stinging nettle has the most nutrients, but garlic mustard is a good spring tonic.”
Collecting invasives for cooking:
• Know your species: When in doubt, leave it out. Be cautious about ingesting new foods, try just a little first in case of bad reactions.
• Only forage where you know it’s safe and legal, nowhere that’s been treated with chemicals or near pollution. Don’t take from private property without permission, and don’t take from unsafe terrain.
• Be a good steward. Leave no trace. Care for the native species present. Properly dispose of leftover materials. In the case of garlic mustard, even a single plant can spread thousands of seeds that are not destroyed by backyard composting. Even after picking, a discarded plant could have enough stored nutrients to flower and produce viable seeds, so it must be disposed of through landfill, incineration, or a composting facility hot enough to kill the seeds (over 160 degrees).
Below: “Bite Back” potluck participants traced leaves and stems to make screen prints that will be used in a cookbook. The tallest stalk in the vase is a garlic mustard with long green seed pods. Ecologist Alex Roth, FMR. (Photos by Margo Ashmore) Maturing garlic mustard are pointy, younger leaves are rounded. (File photo by Carol Jensen)