Garlic Mustard, or Jack-by-the-Hedge, is a lovely biennial plant that appears along the edges of woodlands in early spring. This plant is well known to many foragers, but it is new to me and I was so excited to “discover” it while walking in the woods at the historic farmstead where we keep our garden.
The flowers, seedpods, and leaves of Garlic Mustard are all edible, and the plant is medicinal as well.
If you crush and roll the leaves of this herb, you will notice a subtle garlicky mustard smell, and it has a hint of this taste as well, hence the name. Its leaves are bitter, like kale or chard, and so it tastes best when mixed into a veggie sandwich, wrap or roll, savory veggie soups, tomato sauces, avocado spreads, etc.
Garlic Mustard greens are great for nutrition, with high vitamin A (8,600 units per 100 grams) and vitamin C (190mg per 100 grams), according to William Needham, who writes the “Hiker’s Notebook” for the Sierra Club at SierraPotomac.org.
The flowering Garlic Mustard plant is also expectorant, antiseptic, stimulant, anti-asthmatic, and it expels worms and helps to heal wounds, according to Lesley Bremness, author of the Smithsonian Handbook, Herbs. A poultice of Garlic Mustard can be used to treat skin ulcers and cuts, and the juice stimulates blood flow. Leaf tea purifies the blood, she states.
During its first year, the Garlic Mustard plant grows lower to the ground with kidney-shaped, ruffle-edged leaves. In its second year, it grows taller with larger heart-shaped, toothy-edged leaves, long stems, and groups of delicate white flowers on top. Each little flower has four white petals in the shape of a cross. Below and among the flower clusters, you may see green leafless shoots growing out and upward from the stem where earlier flowers have been. These are the ripening seedpods.
Garlic Mustard (Family: Cruciferae; Species: Alliaria petiolata) is considered an invasive, or alien species here in the United States. It was allegedly imported from Europe in the 1860s and has no known predators here. The USDA wants to eradicate this plant by bringing in another alien species, a weevil, but if they bring in an alien bug to get rid of an alien plant, who will be the predator for the invading bug?
Here’s my suggestion: Let’s harvest this pretty, nutritious, medicinal plant that grows in abundance at a time of year when garden greens are scarce. My 8-year-old Emma thinks this sounds pretty cool: “Mom! You are the predator of alien invaders.” I think this sounds out of character for me, but OK. Let’s do it.
The bright side for foragers is that Garlic Mustard plant can be gathered freely without concern for overharvesting, and the leaves are pristine.
Take It Slow
As always with foraging, use good judgment and caution. Some wild plants are deadly and others have extremely unpleasant consequences; you obviously want to avoid those, so be absolutely sure of a plant’s identification before you eat it. When I found Garlic Mustard, I made a visual ID using my herb books and the Internet. Then, wearing garden gloves, I crushed the leaves to check for the garlic smell. I ate just one washed leaf the first time to watch for personal reactions, such as allergy.
If you are taking medications, if you have a medical condition, or if you are pregnant or nursing, please check with your health care provider before trying a new herb. (I am not a health care provider or a nutritionist.) Go slow, be safe, and enjoy the process.
And now, how about a walk in the woods?