Q: I am interested in foraging for food, and I’m curious about garlic mustard. Can you tell me what to do with it?

A: Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), while delicious, is non-native and highly invasive. A small infestation can develop into a well-established understory in just a few years. This characteristic has earned it a place on Minnesota’s Noxious Weed List as a restricted species. While it is illegal to transport the propagating parts (i.e. seeds) of the plant, there is no law preventing savvy foragers from bringing the garlicky leaves and other plant parts into their kitchens. Its edibility creates the potential for a mutually beneficial situation wherein a forager finds a tasty bounty and a landowner gets help removing a potentially catastrophic invader.

Like many members of the mustard family, garlic mustard can be identified by its clusters of small, four-petaled white flowers. It can be found in the lush understories of healthy forests and in disturbed areas like roadsides. As a biennial plant, it produces a rosette of heart-shaped leaves with scalloped edges in its first year and then bolts to flower in its second year. The leaves are arranged in an alternate pattern along the flowering stem, become more triangular in shape, and, when crushed, emit a strong and enticing garlic aroma.

Garlic mustard flowering (Steven Katovich / Bugwood.org)
Garlic mustard flowering (Steven Katovich / Bugwood.org)

While garlic mustard can be eaten and enjoyed at any time during its lifecycle, it is arguably best enjoyed as a second-year plant. Leaves from the first-year rosettes are tasty, but slightly more bitter than the second-year leaves, and significantly more bitter than the flowering stalks. Just before the flowers open (mid- to late May in northern Minnesota), the top six inches of the stem can be harvested, stripped of their leaves, and sautéed or enjoyed raw. They have a sweet, smooth garlic flavor and can be used in the same way you might use green beans or asparagus. Pesto is a popular application for the leaves and flower buds. The leaves can be used in place of basil, and the flower buds add a spicy, horseradish flavor.

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Despite its tastiness, garlic mustard poses a real threat to Minnesota’s native forbs. Its ability to tolerate low light allows it to thrive on the forest floor, where our native understory plants have previously taken refuge from other invasives. If you’re interested in foraging for garlic mustard and you’ve received permission (or, more likely, encouragement) from the landowner, just make sure you harvest the whole plant — root and all. Then enjoy your bounty and hope you never see garlic mustard there again.

For more information visit: extension.umn.edu/identify-invasive-species/garlic-mustard.

Written by U of M Extension Master Gardeners in St. Louis County. Send questions to features@duluthnews.com.