Andrew M. Deines, PhD
This weedy invasive species can be used in many delicious dishes, but a salad is not a conservation silver bullet.
Garlic mustard: some spring in your step
I recently started a job in Ann Arbor, MI. Immediately prior to this, whenever I was feeling peckish, I could pop out of the office and mere moments after my craving for coffee (or say, a breakfast burrito), I could be satisfied at a nearby shop. Now, however, if my hankering for a pesto panini hits I am 0.7miles away from respite! I tell you this because as this year’s late spring launches towards summer, this otherwise lovely constitutional taunts me with the smell of my culinary nemesis- Garlic Mustard.
Garlic mustard: Beyond pesto
Garlic mustard is one of our most frequent ingredients at Invasivore.org, where we eat invasive species. We put it on everything, it’s our spinach. We’ve tried a lot of stuff from Chinese mystery snail to wild pigs, but the greens right outside our backdoor (whether we want them there or not) are delicious, convenient, and eating them might (see below) contribute to lessoning the impacts of invasion. Native plants, particularly early spring wildflowers, lose-out to garlic mustard’s fast growth which drinks up sunlight and nutrient s before other species even wipe the winter from their stamens. Particularly damaging, they exude chemicals that suppress other plants and make them unpalatable to predators. Except perhaps, to us. And maybe goats, they eat anything, those crazy buggers.
There’s many a garlic-mustard pesto recipe out there (google says 1.5 million or so), and the popularity of pesto probably stems from how common it has become across the US, how easy it is to identify, how tasty it is, and probably a lack of imagination. Hence my epic failure (so far) of Garlic Mustard Ice Cream. Though frankly, it’s hard to beat a good fresh garlic mustard salad. A salad is only unimaginative until you put garlic mustard in it.
Does pulling, and eating, garlic mustard do any good for conservation? This is a question we’ve struggled with as invasivores and ecologists. On the one hand, pulling garlic mustard intuitively seems like it should decrease the population size, and hence the negative impacts of this invasive species. On the other hand the garlic mustard we are trying to eliminate could hitch a ride on our clothes, to be spread into new areas. What if someone likes to eat garlic mustard enough to purposely move it to a garden, spawning a new invasion front? Does making delicious food from invasive species just confuse the public? The answers to these questions are not clear.
Education and awareness
Last spring I was leading a group of university undergraduates on an ecology field trip, causally picking and munching garlic mustard as I walked; added it to my turkey sandwich. Eventually they asked me about it, and I told them the same story I’m telling you. Food, it appears, makes an excellent appetizer for conservation education. In many cases, like garlic mustard, the invasive species is here to stay and there is little we can do about it. The most effective solution to invasive species is not eating them, but preventing them. With this knowledge, we can make garlic mustard pesto until it comes out our ears. We need to feed it to managers and policy makers; get their attention so they can hear us when we say to take action on invasive species prevention.
Andy Deines is an editor of Invasivore.org, a website that shares information about invasive species, highlighting how to eat them. He is Post-doctoral Researcher at Michigan State University and recently earned his PhD from the University of Notre Dame by studying the ecological and economic impacts of invasive tilapia in Zambia. Andy also spent 2 years in that country as a part of the US Peace Corps’ agriculture, forestry, and environment program.
*Please be aware that Garlic Mustard contains trace amounts of cyanide and should not be consumed in large quantities. If you choose to give any recipes a try, make sure to harvest from a spot that has not been treated with herbicides or other potentially harmful chemicals.