Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is an extremely invasive plant, but of all the invasive plants that trouble our woods and meadows, it’s probably the one that we could get rid of most easily. It is certainly possible to remove it for good from specific areas, such as your property. It’s a biennial, which means it flowers and goes to seed in its second season of growth and never develops a large root system. It flowers in mid-spring–it is flowering right now in Northern New Jersey–so it’s quite easy to identify at the moment (see the photo below). If you pull all of the plants out of a given area this year, and then again next year, it will be gone, except for the chance seed that blows in on the wind. Get out there this weekend and pull it out, before it goes to seed. You will greatly benefit the local environment.
Garlic mustard grows up to about 2 feet tall and has dull, somewhat hairy leaves. The basal (bottom) leaves are toothed and kidney-shaped. The upper leaves are pointier and grow alternately on the stem. Right now, the plant is immediately identifiable by its single cluster of tiny, white, four-petaled flowers. When you see that flower cluster, grab the stem near the base and pull gently but firmly. The entire root system will come out of the soil. The next photo, taken today, is a close-up of the flowers. Note that these flowers are just opening. The plant has not yet gone to seed, which it will do very quickly. And once it does, there’s no point in pulling it–you have to wait until next year to get rid of it.
Why worry about invasive plants? Because they are thugs and bullies, and we can’t allow them to take over our environment. Invasive plants are species that evolved in a different place–in the case of garlic mustard, Europe–and therefore have no natural enemies to keep them in control in our environment. They therefore spread out of control and can replace all the native plants in an area. And why is that bad? Because native animals need native plants for food. A world covered with garlic mustard and Japanese knotweed and English ivy and Norway maple trees would still be green. But it wouldn’t support fireflies or monarch butterflies or fritillaries or red-wing blackbirds or warblers. Sure, there would still be squirrels and pigeons and house sparrows–they’ll eat anything. But such a world would be a less diverse and colorful place.
Garlic mustard, like most invasive plants, was introduced into this continent deliberately as a culinary herb. If you would like to try eating your enemies, here’s a link to a webpage with recipes using garlic mustard: http://www.afha.us/garlic_mustard/gm_recipes.pdf Personally, I prefer to compost it. I’ve been pulling it for the better part of two days, and I can’t bear the smell anymore.