Garlic Mustard — The Monster in the Woods

There’s a monster in the woods, a monster of threatening force, prodigiously reproducing, covering all in its path. Some monsters like Bigfoot are hidden, undercover, and hard enough to find that some don’t believe they exist. This monster is easy to find, so easy in fact, it may be right in front of you.

The monster is garlic mustard.

Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is an invasive species, brought to this continent in the 1860s (wiki). Native to Europe, parts of Asia, and Africa, it was used as an herb or green in Europe, where dozens of insect species and several fungi use the plant as food. Those species do not share habitat with it here. With no natural enemies, it outreproduces competitors, and within a few years can take over the underbrush.

According to EarthCaretaker, the plant has infested 29 states and southern Ontario. Experts are not sure how it spreads across broad ranges, as seeds fall close to the parent plant. However, without intervention, it easily spreads within limited areas, crowding out other low plants. Deer do not eat it, and when garlic mustard has taken hold, the remaining plants deer do eat are cleared even more.

Some butterfly species may become threatened because it resembles a plant on which they would lay eggs, but the garlic mustard has chemical compounds that don’t make a friendly environment for butterfly reproduction.

It grows for two years. The first year, it has green leaves close to the ground, and in the second year it grows up to 3 feet high. You can see what happens when the plants take the margins of the woods. This photo actually shows a pretty minor infestation. We’ve seen areas substantially more invaded than this.

One challenge is that when the plants are flowering, they may appear to be an attractive wildflower, leading property owners to hesitate to clear it. But cleared it must be. Over approximately a five year period, the plants should be cleared, optimally before flowering. To do so, clear early in the season before seeds develop. Pull out the whole plant including the root. If you do this early enough, you can leave the plants in the woods. If you are late, after seed formation, the plants must be bagged and tied, to go to the landfill, not composting. (My city has a separate disposal site for the plants, to ensure they don’t get mixed with yard waste.) Download a pdf on garlic mustard control. This is published by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, so your mileage may vary based on your own climate conditions.


One way to solve the problem of garlic mustard is to eat it. Garlic mustard IS edible, and apparently tastes like garlic. In addition, it’s high in vitamins A and C.

There are a variety of sources for recipes, none of which I will attest to. However, it apparently can be used as a salad green, in wilted greens, pesto recipes, cream sauce, or in many other ways I would never have considered! See this cook book with things for you to try.

Do you have monstrous garlic mustard weed in your yard or nearby public spaces? Does your community have an organized effort to eradicate it? Do you participate?


19 thoughts on “Garlic Mustard — The Monster in the Woods

  1. thegiftofbeard

    It’s pretty prevalent here in MD. Patchy in some areas, widespread in others, but it’s all over. During my Master Naturalist training, we were advised to “kill it with fire” whenever we came across it. Have you come across Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica) out your way? It might be worse than bamboo. At least I can build garden structures and feed the pandas with bamboo.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I don’t know anything about knotweed. As far as I know, we don’t have it around here. As to the garlic mustard, fire sounds like a good solution, as long as it’s before the seeds come out. Thanks.

      1. The Belmont Rooster

        Well, I was curious because after seeing your post, I got to thinking I had seen plants like that on the grown up area in the north side of what used to be the peach orchard. I went out there this afternoon, with the camera, and took a photo… Well, I didn’t stop there. Not only were they in this area, but several others, including the wooded area along the creek.

  2. colorpencil2014

    I did not know this is an invasive plant here in the US..I have plenty in my garden and coming form The Netherlands, I always enjoyed it. (really good in mustard soup!) but I will start pulling now! Thank you for sharing, Johanna

  3. jimfetig

    Invasive species and the law of unintended consequences. Our neck of he woods is overwhelmed with them. The Appalachian Trail is being choked to death my Japanese stilth grass. Ugh!

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      It would take high commitment by an army of volunteers to deal with them. We don’t quite keep ahead of it here. Most people don’t know what it is, or … don’t care.

  4. Debra

    It does have a pretty flower but mustard seeds! It isn’t hard to imagine how it might take over an area.


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