Garlic Mustard

There’s a common late spring wildflower that was thriving in May but is now fading in early June.  I saw a lot of it along wood edges, treelines and roadsides, anywhere where there was partial shade.  Maybe you noticed it too.

This plant is often seen in colonies, as in the above picture.  This is Garlic Mustard.

Garlic Mustard is an Old World plant that has spread to North America.  It has 4 modest-sized white petals per flower- 4 petals being the indicator that is a plant of the Mustard family, other members of which include Winter Cress and such vegetables as Turnips, Kale, Cabbage and Broccoli.

Its leaves can be seen long before the flower blooms, being shiny with networks of veins.  Garlic Mustard is a biennial, which means that it has a 2-year lifecycle, and in its first year you only see the leaves.  In the last half of April you notice it blooming, and in May, its blooms are all over the place.

And the leaves are a big reason why the plant is spreading across North America.  In the 19th century settlers purposefully planted Garlic Mustard in their new home areas because of its culinary and medicinal properties.  As a matter of fact, Garlic Mustard is one of the oldest spices used in Europe- its remains at human sites go back to 6,000 years ago.  As its name indicates, it tastes similar to garlic or mustard.  Its medicinal uses included being used as a disinfectant and as a diuretic.  Today, its leaves are still made into salads.

So this plant has its uses, though as an invasive species it is crowding out native plants.  It has few animals that feed upon it in its new environment, and it releases substances that slow the growth of its competitors.

This is a sight I see frequently on the paths I walk- people uproot the plant to try to slow its spread.  It is widely recognized by the public as an invasive species.

Late in its flowering season, you begin to see ‘spikes’ where the flowers used to grow.  Part of the reason it spreads so readily is that it can self-pollinate if necessary, providing clones of itself.  Each plant can produce hundreds of small black seeds which can scatter meters away.  It is very persistent.

Here’s what I’m seeing currently in June.  The flowers are vanishing but the stems and distinctive leaves still remain for some time.

So, white springtime flowers can be pretty, but they can be a sign of yet another invasive species across the land.