Garlic Mustard: Invading Alien, Delicious Treat, or Both?

In the 1978 sci-fi doomsday flick, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" plant-like aliens take over San Francisco by sending out tendrils that attach to people and digest them while they sleep.  Later a large fruiting pod opens up and an exact replica of the digested human creepily steps out and sets about helping other "pod people" in their nefarious plot to take over the world.  The invading plant aliens basically take over by eating us.  It occurs  to me that the movie plot may have had a completely different outcome if we had eaten the aliens!  Don't be shocked by this.  The pod people looked like us, but they were plants! So eating them wouldn't be cannibalism - even vegetarians could participate! And for all we know those pods would be highly delicious.  Think snap peas, or okra, or peppers - all pods!

Defeating invading aliens by consuming them has been on my mind lately as I continue my ongoing battle with garlic mustard, an abominable invasive plant that happens to be as delicious as its name suggests.   Europeans have been eating this plant for a long time.  Archaeologists have found garlic mustard seeds in food residue in 6000 year old sites in Denmark and Germany.  Sometime in the 1860's somebody decided it would be a good idea to plant this culinary herb in their little garden plot in New York.  That person was no doubt horrified as the plant, freed of it's European insect and fungal control agents, grew rampantly out of control.  Garlic mustard is now considered a tenacious alien invasive species in North America and grows almost everywhere in the US and Canada (map).

Garlic mustard is in the family Brassicaceae, thus is a cousin to common garden plants like radishes, cabbages, and broccoli - and mustard!  It is a biennial, that is, it takes two years for it to become mature and produce seeds. Seeds germinate early in the spring of the first year and grow into a low plant with round leaves by the middle of the summer that vaguely looks like creeping charlie. 

In the second year, the plant shoots up  a stalk, flowers develop on the stalk, and when the flowers fall, they leave behind thin, spiky seedpods called siliques.  Each plant can have 20-50 siliques and each silique contains a row of 30-40 little black seeds.  If you do the multiplication, you will see that each plant can produce anywhere from a thousand to a jiggity-bazillion seeds. Each of those seeds can sprout where they land, or be tracked by wild animals to a whole new location.  With no natural controls, garlic mustard can completely carpet a woodland a few years after it is introduced.  Deer and other browsers think garlic mustard tastes bad and will not eat it.  Instead they browse on the few remaining native plants trying to hold on against the garlic mustard onslaught depleting them even further.  This plant is incredibly destructive to local ecosystems because it crowds out native plant species and destroys habitat and food sources for wildlife.

Second-year garlic mustard in bloom

Garlic mustard gone to seed - note long thin siliques (seed pods)
When I first became aware of this invasive pest, I found that it was already well established in my woods.  It carpeted nearly an acre.  I've been battling it ever since.  While pulling the plant is effective as long as you get the whole long root, I find spot spraying with Roundup to be a better approach because of the sheer volume of plants I have to destroy each year.  Any plant that I allow to bloom and go to seed will send out thousands of seeds to start next year's crop.  By late April, the baby plants are already poking through the leaf litter and the two-year plants are already forming buds. There's not a lot of time to dilly-dally.  

But before I start spraying, I always harvest a bunch of plants to eat, because, this nasty invader really is quite delicious.  If you decide you want to try some garlic mustard, go for it.  It shouldn't be too hard for you to forage.  Just make sure you've got the right plant - there are plants that resemble garlic mustard that are toxic.  Also, be sure to harvest BEFORE you spray, or if you're harvesting from someone else's property, make sure that they haven't been spraying!

Garlic mustard adds interesting flavor to soups and salads, and was traditionally used to season fish and meat.  This year I made my harvested plants into a pesto.

First I harvested a bunch of garlic mustard.  It wasn't hard to find -  a veritable garden of second-year budding plants  was growing on the lee side of a rotting log on the edge of my woods.

In less than a minute I'd harvested a good-sized bundle of plants, which I carried to the house.

I tossed the plants in the kitchen sink, gave them a good rinse, got rid of all the twigs and dead oak leaves jumbled in with the plants, then cut off and discarded all of the woody stems.  I was left with about three cups of leaves, which I spun in a salad spinner to remove the rinse water.

Next I toasted some walnuts.  Traditional pesto uses pine nuts.  They would work just fine with my garlic mustard pesto, but I think the slight bitterness of walnuts works well with the unique flavor of garlic mustard.

I tossed the toasted walnuts into a food processor along with a clove of garlic and pulsed the processor until everything was minced.

Then I added the garlic mustard and pulsed until it was coarsely chopped.

I added the garlic mustard in two batches so as to not overload the food processor.  After it was chopped, it looked like this.

I added a teaspoon of lemon juice.  This small bit of lemon juice came from my freezer. When I juice a lemon, I freeze the leftover juice for later use - I can't tell the difference between the frozen juice and fresh.  I never use the bottled stuff, though; it has a definite "processed" taste.  Along with the lemon juice, I added a teaspoon of salt and a few grinds of pepper.  Then I did a quick pulse to mix everything.

Next, with the processor on "constant", I slowly added 3/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil.  I'm a fan of California olive oil; domestic oil is often fresher than European oil, and California's olive oil evaluation standards exceed those of the European Union.  

Then with the processor off, I added 3/4 cup of parmesan cheese.  I get my parm from Star Dairy in the little town of Weyauwega, Wisconsin.  Star Dairy makes some fine cheese.  I suggest you check out your locality for a cheese source.  There are some great little dairies all over the country.  I pulsed the processor a few times to mix in the parm and the pesto was done!  The final product looked like this:

This pesto can be eaten on crackers or good crusty bread.  Or try it on toasted bread with some olives, capers, and fresh tomatoes for a quasi-bruschetta.  I tossed this batch with some linguine and white beans, sprinkled a little more parm on the top and garnished it with a few toasted walnuts.  First bite:  A little surprising - the basil flavor one usually expects with pesto is missing.  But this has such a nice garlic flavor.  Actually not quite garlic - more like mustard.  Well, actually, more like garlic mustard.  Anyway, it's pretty darn delicious.  

Here's the recipe:

Garlic Mustard Pesto

3 cups garlic mustard leaves
1 clove garlic
1/2 cup walnuts
3/4 cup parmesan cheese
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
a few grinds pepper

Toss the nuts and garlic into a food processor and pulse until they're minced.  Add the garlic mustard and pulse until coarsely chopped.  Add lemon juice, salt, and pepper and pulse to mix.  With the processor on "constant", add the oil.  Add parmesan and pulse to mix.

[This post has been shared on Clever Chicks Blog Hop # 235]

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