Garlic Mustard 101: What it is and what to do with it

Are you familiar with the garlic mustard plant? If you live in Massachusetts, the chances are you have walked past the plant many times before—maybe even in your own backyard. 

While this invasive plant is a threat to surrounding species, it isn’t all bad. Read on to learn how to identify the plant, why now is the ideal time of year to help and how to put it to good use.

What is garlic mustard? 

Garlic mustard (scientific name: Alliaria petiolata) was brought to the United States more than 200 years ago and grown for herbal and medicinal purposes. Fast forward to today and the plant has taken root in fields and forests all over the country.

The plant is a biennial: the first year, plants typically grow in low rosettes of leaves. The second year, garlic mustard sends up flower stalks that can grow up to four feet tall with clusters of small, white flowers. Depending on the age of the plant, the leaves can vary. During the first year, garlic mustard leaves are round and scalloped, later changing to leaves that are triangular and heart-shaped with edges that resemble small teeth. 

Why pull garlic mustard?

Garlic mustard spreads quickly and heavily, with each plant producing hundreds of tiny, round seeds and quickly moving into areas where open soil is available. The plant releases antifungal chemicals into the soil, changing the makeup of the soil and displacing hardwood trees and other native plants.

It is best to pull garlic mustard out of the ground in the spring (April to June) before the plant flowers and seed pods form. With a little planning and proper supplies, you can embark on a garlic mustard hunt to help stop the spread! Follow these steps on the AVIS trails, in your neighborhood, or even in your own backyard:

  • Wear gloves: Some people can develop a rash when handling the plant. 
  • Pull the plant out carefully: While garlic mustard often comes out of the ground easily, try to remove both the stem and the long tap root. A good time to pull garlic mustard is after a heavy rain.
  • Simply pull first-year plants (rosettes of round, lobed leaves) and leave them to wilt and die.  
  • Pull second year plants (with flower stems and toothed leaves), place the plants in plastic bags and dispose with your garbage. Note: do not compost at home or put in the town’s compost. Amazingly, the seeds can finish developing and ripening even after the plant is pulled.

What you can do with it

If you are pulling garlic mustard plants from an area where you know the plants are clean, there are some ways to put the plant to use. 

After the next spring rainstorm, consider going on a garlic mustard hunt! Grab some gloves, plastic bags and a copy of the reference pictures. Head to the AVIS trails or into your neighborhood to get this invasive, yet edible, plant out of the ground and into your kitchen.

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