Europe has given us many great food and drink specialties — prosecco and spumoni from Italy, triple cream brie and wine from France, sangria from Spain and Guinness (need I say more?) from Ireland.
There is at least one culinary gift from Europe that we can do without. Botanists, butterfly lovers, and plant people of all types abhor this overseas present, the invasive plant, garlic mustard. And some folks have come up with very creative ways to eradicate it.
In Maryland, the Friends of Patapsco Valley and Heritage Greenway, Inc., hold an annual Garlic Mustard Challenge. The goal of this event is to remove, cook and eat garlic mustard in order to keep it from encroaching on native plants. A cook-off is held to create the best dish using garlic mustard. Since its inception, over 3,722 pounds of this invasive plant have been removed (and most of it subsequently eaten).
At first glance, garlic mustard sounds like a tasty combination. The round and heart-shaped leaves of this plant can be used in any recipe that calls for mustard greens. Pesto is possible too, and winning recipes from the Challenge included garlic mustard mashed potatoes, stuffed garlic mustard leaves, garlic mustard dip, and garlic mustard frittata.
This plant, not related botanically to garlic, arrived in America in 1868 and was used as a kitchen herb. In Britain in times past, it was observed that “the people in the country eat the leaves of this plant with their bread, and on account of the relish they give, call them ‘sauce-alone.’ They also mix them with lettuce, use them as a stuffing herb to pork, and eat them with salt-fish.”
How is something that sounds so good so bad?
Garlic mustard is highly invasive and will outcompete native wildflowers. You only have 10 short years before a full infestation will destroy all neighboring plants and leave a monoculture of mustard. But it gets worse for some wildlife. In a cruel twist of fate, two butterfly species that are dependent on another similar plant for their caterpillar food will mistakenly lay their eggs on the garlic mustard plant. The eggs will be killed by a toxin that is contained in the garlic mustard plant.
While we do not yet have a large problem with garlic mustard on the Island, it is slowly beginning to get a foot, make that root-hold here. I am seeing more and more of this plant, which was flowering last week, along Island roadsides and in wild areas.
It has white clusters of four-petaled flowers and its leaves when crushed smell (and taste) garlicky. The profusion of this plant could lead to a botanical tragedy of epic proportions.
After flowering, garlic mustard will produce a four-sided seed pod called a silique. When this pod opens, thousands of seeds are spread several meters around the mother plant and can be carried further afield by animals, humans, and water. These seeds can self-pollinate or be cross-pollinated by insects, and to make matters worse, can be viable for up to five years.
If you see this wanted weed (and are sure of its identification), eradicate it by pulling it out (with its taproot) before it releases seeds, or cut the stalk at ground height to reduce seed production. It is vital that you dispose of it properly — remember that the seeds can last for five years. This is not a plant to throw in your (or the town’s) compost pile.
Keep an eye out and a taste bud ready for this pesky and persistent plant. Don’t be shy about pulling it from your own or any other property or else it will become a problem for us all. Have the last laugh (and, at the worst, garlic breath) by creating a tasty treat from this irritating invader. Take to heart the motto of the founders of the Garlic Mustard Challenge, who simply say “we pull and dine — rain or shine.”
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.