Garlic mustard is an herbaceous plant native to Asia, Africa, and parts of Europe. In North America, it’s a common weed that invades ecosystems and chokes out the native flora. Garlic mustard is also edible. In fact, it’s one of the oldest spices used in Europe. Traces of garlic mustard were found on pottery 6000 years old! It was later introduced to North America by settlers who cultivated the plant for its delicious and medicinal properties. The plant can be an excellent ingredient to add to your culinary routine. But, how exactly should you prepare it? And how do you get your hands on it? Keep reading to learn all about the garlic mustard plant!
What Is the Garlic Mustard Plant?
The garlic mustard plant (Alliaria petiolata) is a biennial plant in the mustard family (Brassicaceae). Although the plant is unrelated to garlic, it gives off a strong garlic-like odor from its stems and leaves. During the first year of its life, the flowering plant grows as a low-lying herb with basal leaves growing in a rosette near the ground. Then, in year two, the plant shoots for the sky and begins to flower and set seed. Part of the reason garlic mustard is such a noxious weed is that it secretes toxins that can kill soil fungi. Most animals seem to steer clear of the plant, likely due to the toxins and its strong smell. Humans, on the other hand, love the plant for its odorous properties. Plus, it’s non-toxic to humans.
Where Do You Get It?
Garlic mustard can’t be found in most supermarkets or grocery stores. It’s more of a specialty herb, so it’s not commonly sold, especially while fresh. Instead, most people seek out their own wild plants to harvest or cultivate. Throughout its range, garlic mustard can grow in virtually any habitat. It does especially well on roadsides, forest edges, next to streams, and other disturbed areas. However, it can grow in environments anywhere from city parks to wilderness areas. If you’re in North America, there’s a good chance the exotic plant has invaded a nearby park or forest, where it can be harvested guilt-free. Try asking a local botanist or member of a local native plant chapter if they’ve seen garlic mustard around.
How to Identify Garlic Mustard
To recognize garlic mustard, look for kidney-shaped basal leaves. Or, if the plant is flowering, look for single-stemmed plants with white flowers. It can grow anywhere from a few centimeters to a meter tall. The flowers have four white petals in the shape of a cross. Garlic mustard emits a strong garlic smell when any part of the plant is crushed, so follow your nose! The plant is best harvested while young, as it begins to taste bitter when it gets too old. Try to harvest in early to late spring, and avoid harvesting in hot summer months when the plant loses its favorable taste. If you’re in North America, you’re actually helping your native ecosystems by removing this invasive plant. Make sure to pull out those roots too, as they are also edible!
It’s important to follow one simple rule when you forage for wild plants: be 100% sure of your identification! Otherwise, you may end up eating a plant that can make you sick, or worse. Imagine biting into a stinging nettle you accidentally put in a salad. Ouch!
How to Prepare Garlic Mustard
Once you have garlic mustard, there are plenty of dishes to try it with. It can add a fresh, spicy flavor in place of more common herbs and spices. Because it has such a strong taste, it’s rarely used as the main ingredient, but rather as an herb or spice. Plus, it has many medicinal benefits, which we’ll get to later.
First, take the plants home and wash them thoroughly. Make sure to remove any insects and dirt from the plant, especially from the roots. Then, parse out the different parts of the plant. Remove the leaves and flowers by running your hand down the stem from top to bottom. Finally, separate the roots from the stem.
There are many delicious things you can do with garlic mustard. The stems can be eaten raw by themselves, or with a bit of olive oil or butter. Their crisp, fragrant taste makes for a spicy snack. Alternatively, you can boil or steam the stems and serve them alongside another dish.
The leaves, flowers, and roots are a little more bitter, so they aren’t usually eaten on their own. Instead, try to add them to different foods or sauces. You can:
- Use in place of basil in a pesto recipe, like this one!
- Toss the leaves and flower buds into your favorite salad
- Add finely chopped leaves to mashed potatoes
- Blend them together with cooked chickpeas, tahini, olive oil, and lemon juice to make a spicy hummus
Of course, there are many other ways to use garlic mustard. The best thing about this plant is its versatility, so there is a world of culinary options!
Medicinal Properties of Garlic Mustard
Aside from its fragrant and tasty properties, garlic mustard has a whole lot of medicinal benefits. Traditionally, the plant was used as an antiseptic for wounds and eaten as a diuretic. It’s also rich in vitamins A, B, C, and E. Other beneficial properties include:
- Good for controlling weight
- Improves heart health
- Lowers cholesterol
- Strengthens the immune system
Garlic Mustard Summed Up
Foragers love garlic mustard for its abundance and ease to harvest. It provides a tasty kick to many dishes and can elevate them to the next level. In addition, it’s a super healthy plant that was traditionally used for its medicinal benefits. Now that you know how to find and use garlic mustard, try experimenting with it in the kitchen and take advantage of all its beneficial properties!