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Invasive properties, garlic mustard

Alien Threatens Natives — And Others

by Wes Porter
Thursday, June 22, 2006

Garlic Mustard sounds like something out of science fiction. Or maybe it could be featured in one of those ads offering herbal bliss the natural way. Well, it is natural all right. And, if you are a sci-fi fan, you’ll be delighted to known it is a genuine bona fide alien. Not an invader from outer space though but from Europe — those having encountered the pesky weed often opine there is not much difference. Now it turns out there are worse problems than its invasive properties.

This alien, according to researchers at the University of Guelph, poisons other plants growing nearby. Small as it is, it can even damage trees. It does this in what, for a weed, is a very clever manner. The roots release chemicals that can kill organisms in the soil that are essential in providing nutrition to neighbouring plants. Worse still, these poisons remain in the soil long after the Garlic Mustard itself is eliminated.

For years, Alliaria petiolata has been spreading in waysides, waste places and untended gardens. Organizations such as the Toronto Field Naturalists have encouraged members to mechanically eliminate it early every season. The heart-shaped, toothed leaves grow on stems up to 3 feet (1m) tall. The small flowers are white, the four petals forming a cross so identifying it as a member of the Cruciferae, or cabbage and mustard family.

The ‘mustard’ in the name is correct then but the ‘garlic’ is not. Crushed, the leaves smell more like onion. Perhaps in Britain, where that common name arose, their noses were not tuned into real garlic — despite it is also known over there as ‘Hedge Garlic.’ Or ‘Jack-by-the-Hedge’ Or ‘Poor Man’s Mustard.’ Or ‘Sauce-All-Alone.’

These names indicate that the British, like their continental neighbours, will eat just about anything. (The infamous story that they will eat anything with four legs is not true though — the dining room table and chairs are perfectly safe.) They have eaten Garlic Mustard leaves in salads, made into bread-and-butter sandwiches, mixed into a white sauce to accompany fish dishes, and cooked as a green vegetable.

One natural living enthusiast suggests that cooked, the leaves lose their onion/garlic flavour. Instead, they will resemble turnip tops, she says, strong tasting and rather bitter — and recommends adding butter, ground black pepper and "plenty of grated nutmeg."

We test tasted them once — and once only. Alas, the old advice of ‘if you can’t beat it, eat it,’ does not hold true here. And now it seems they are not even fit for composting.

Wes Porter is a horticultural consultant and writer based in Toronto. He has over 40 years of experience in both temperate and tropical horticulture from three continents.