Thursday, February 23, 2012

Garlic Mustard...

Like all things in life, you can look at any situation and see the good and the bad.

Let's take this winter for example.  My son Owen is extremely disappointed with the poor sledding and snowman-making conditions.  My step son Noah is pleased the weather has been pleasant enough that the ice fishing hasn't frozen his bits off like previous winters.  He also misses the snowmen we didn't get to make this year.  As a self-professed gardening addict, I'm more than a little glad to see the days getting longer and the ground showing through the ice and snow already.

We were getting out on the lake this past family day weekend and I happened to spy some GREEN on the GROUND!

The earliest showings of garlic mustard in our own back yard!  Note the wee heart shaped leaves which will grow to 2-5" in width.  The leaves are dark green, scalloped-edged, deeply veined, and long stalked.

Of course, once you get to know what garlic mustard looks like, you'll begin to realize you've seen this plant before...EVERYWHERE.  In fact, we recognized it immediately, as we've been weeding it out of our garden for years!  What a score...that's two things we've been ripping out and throwing away for no reason.  (The other wild edible we found was purslane)

The picture above is the garlic mustard from last'll probably want to avoid it.  The taste is not great.  The texture of the plants are both frozen and thawed.  Mush....not so yummy.  Once you begin to see the new growth, you can have at 'er. 

Garlic mustard (alliaria officinalis), also called Jack-by-the-hedge or sauce-alone, is found all over North America.  It was originally brought over from Europe as a food crop.  Unfortunately, as with many imported plants, garlic mustard took over and is now considered an invasive species.  Lucky for us!  We can now feel good about harvesting as much as you'd like without the guilty feeling of if too much is picked, the plant will never grow back.

The best part is that garlic mustard has no poisonous look-a-likes.  Yay!

One of the reasons why garlic mustard is a favorite first plant of foragers is because it can be found almost all year long.  It survives under snow because it contains natural anti-freezes that lower the boiling point of water.  Steve Brill cautions in his book "Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places" that you should never put garlic mustard in your car's radiator...its not that kind of antifreeze. 

Garlic mustard is listed in many herbals as having warming properties as well as stimulating digestion.  Steve Brill says in his book that "garlic mustard is antiseptic:  Juice from the leaves is used for cleansing skin ulcers and eruptions.  People also crush the leaves until moist and rub them on aching limbs for a feeling of warmth."  Instead of running out for some Rub A535...trying looking around your yard for garlic mustard and give it a try! 

Basically any plant with the word "officinalis" in the latin name is a wonder plant used by the Greeks for medicinal and nutritional purposes.  Dandelions and watercress also are carriers of the officinalis name. 

When garlic mustard enters its second (and final) year of growth, the leaves become more pungent and less bitter.  The leaf shape itself changes from a heart shape to a triangle shape.  The four-petalled, white flowers that occur in June of its second year are good for garnishing salads and pasta dishes, according to Leda McDonald (who writes for the Food Down the Road newspaper ).  Later on, in July and August, when the leaves have lost all their taste, the seeds can be harvested and used like mustard seeds.

I find it astounding that one single plant can have so many flavours.  While the leaves (when crushed) smell and taste like garlic....the seeds taste like mustard?!  Nature never ceases to amaze... 

At any time of the year, the roots can be harvested and blended into a horseradish-like puree.

Steve Brill suggests that "garlic mustard leaves are great raw in salads, mixed with more milder greens.   It's also good steamed, simmered, sauteed or in sauces.  Cook only 5 min or the leaves will become mushy."

Because Garlic mustard is such an invasive species, many areas have pulled together to make a community event out of it!  The Patapsco Heritage Greenway state park in Maryland hosts an annual garlic mustard event on the first Sunday of May.  After checking out the link, its sounds like a really fun event, complete with "Villan of the Valley" poster contests, garlic mustard pulling contests (2 hrs and judged by weight), cooking contests (winning recipes are posted on the same link), local music, kids games and historical and environmental displays.

Below is a link to a similar challenge in April in Vermont.  I just love the name of the article...sums it up perfectly..."If you can't beat em, eat em" featuring a recipe for garlic mustard pesto.  Follow the link and have a listen (its a radio show).

For even more information...check out the link below...Ontario Wildflowers

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