Last summer I pulled up a bunch of Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) that has invaded the edges of my property with a vengeance. It is rather easy to pull the entire plant, roots and all. But what I didn’t realize was that I was also pulling up its 50-year seed bank and that one plant was probably replaced by 50 or more seedlings. As in the Greek myth, I felt like Sisyphus fruitlessly pushing the rock up the hill. This year I am going to put wet cardboard down over the plants, followed by a four- to six-inch layer of old wood chips. Non-native invasives like these can take over habitats from native plants. And they aren’t eaten by insects, so fail to provide the roles in ecosystems that native plants do.
I am determined, however, to get back at those plants in another way—by eating them! Garlic Mustard is a biennial, having a two-year growth cycle. It has a basal rosette of small green leaves its first year and is evergreen through the winter. The second year it grows larger, sends up a stalk with white flowers, and, after releasing thousands of seeds, it dies.
According to experts that forage for wild plants, the second-year roots taste like horseradish. You can also eat the second year leaves. Gather the leaves (plants growing in the shade are usually less bitter), blanch them in water, and mix with olive oil and cheese in a blender to make a pesto. There are also many Garlic Mustard recipes online.
A word of caution: Garlic Mustard contains traces of cyanide, which is one way the plant defends itself from predators. Many members of the mustard family—such as broccoli, cabbage, and kale—also contain traces of this toxin. To be on the safe side, limit wild mustard collecting to once or twice a month. Cyanide is also water soluble, so blanching or boiling the leaves before consumption measurably reduces cyanide levels.
Now is also the time to gather one of the most destructive invasive plants out in the wild: Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica). For the next few weeks, until about mid-May, the new reddish, asparagus-like shoots of this plant are yours for the taking, and you don’t have to worry about overharvesting! Actually, when picked, smaller shoots will arise again and can be gathered later. They taste a lot like rhubarb, tart and crunchy, and can be used as a substitute in apple–rhubarb crisp or strawberry–rhubarb pie.
Wild Garlic, also called Lawn Garlic or Onion Grass (Allium vineale), is an introduced plant from Europe, northwestern Africa, and the Middle East. It can be found growing in many lawns. This plant makes a great substitute for Ramp or Wild Leek (Allium tricoccum), a native plant that has been overharvested and is now vulnerable in many areas. Wild Garlic can be dug up and the small bulbs used as a flavoring in soups. The slender leaves can be sliced up and used just like chives. Some natural food markets are selling it for $3.00 per bunch!
Another plant on the top 10 invasive nasties list is Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris). I am constantly pulling this plant to try to get rid of it. But doing that can be futile, as it has underground stems (rhizomes). If any tiny piece is missed, a new plant will grow. Author and wild food forager Tama Matsuoka Wong says the feathery leaves are “awesome as tempera.” Martha Stewart has a Mugwort soup recipe.
Before you harvest any of these invasives, make sure you know the history of the soil where the plant is growing. Roadsides, parking lots, and other potentially contaminated ground may have high levels of lead and other pollutants. Also, be sure you can identify the plant properly and not be confused by look-alike plants that could be toxic. Go out with an expert forager if you are unsure.
Meet expert foragers Gina Rae La Cerva and Alexis Nicole Nelson through the Yale Peabody Museum at the free webinar “Feasting Wild: A Conversation on the Politics, Pleasures, and (Bio)diversity of Foraging” on Thursday, April 29, 2021 at 5:30 pm. Register here. Happy foraging!