Patriots! Resist the Green Invaders! Garlic Mustard that is…

Patriots, arise! It is time for you to fulfill your sacred duty to American soil and cast off foreign invaders! Yes, my fellow citizens, visa and green-card holders, undocumented immigrants, and uncategorizable others, it is time for you to get down on your knees, look at our American earth, and start pulling up garlic mustard.

Garlic mustard! It sounds like a specialty condiment at Whole Paycheck, as my household affectionately titles a certain supermarket where we can’t afford to shop. Alas, garlic mustard, alias Alliaria petiolata, is actually an invasive plant which arrived in New England in 1898, and is found all over Boston today. “Invasive,” in plant terms – like the Invasive Plant Atlas of New England – means that the plant will tend to grow better than native plants, and push them out of habitats.

In the case of garlic mustard, “invasive” means that it takes over ecosystems and hogs all the water and space, and displaces understory wild flowers like spring beauty, wild ginger, bloodroot, Dutchman’s breeches, hepatica, toothworts, and trilliums. It even poisons the soil fungus that helps little trees grow. Without any trees, there’s more sun for garlic mustard! Yippee! It all reminds me of a vegetal version of the old “Pave the Earth” internet discussion group, whose mission was to irritate environmentalists by advocating covering the entire planet with asphalt.

It doesn’t stop with plant-bullying. Even animals have a tough time with garlic mustard. When little caterpillars–tiny baby butterflies!– like the larvae of the Mustard white, Pieris napi aleracea, hatch out on the plants, they can’t digest the leaves well and become haggard and morose, so there are fewer grown-up butterflies as well.

That’s the problem with invasive plants in a nutshell. Yes, there have been plenty of articles recently proclaiming how wonderful invasive plants are, and how they diversify the landscape, and gosh, people who oppose invasive plants are just acting out of xenophobia. They’re wrong. Garlic mustard, like its invasive cohorts, only increases diversity if your measurement of diversity is “How many garlic mustard plants can we find?” They take up more resources than other plants, and don’t provide quality food for wildlife.

Imagine what would happen in Harvard University, in an ideological quirk, decided to admit a class composed of 50% Martians, the new green students. Suppose those students, once they arrived on campus, ate all the food in the cafeteria and took up every seat in the library, and mysteriously won all the lotteries to get into the really cool classes. The only other students left would be the folks who lived off campus and didn’t mind getting their second-choice classes.

Sure, there would be more Martians than there were before, so technically the college would be more diverse. But how long would it be before Harvard became a solely Martian college? Do you really want your local forest to turn into a giant garlic-mustard field?

Our determination to resist our garlic-mustard overlords is how Alliaria petiolata ended up on the Massachusetts Prohibited Plants List. Mind you, at this time of year a landscape that consists entirely of garlic mustard can seem appealing. Right now, Alliaria petiolata is a pretty ring of leaves that look fresh and green when most native plants can’t be bothered to even send up a shoots. Crinkle up a leaf, and you’ll smell, well, garlic and mustard. In a week or two, the real fun will begin, as the second-year plants rapidly flower and disperse hundreds of seeds. Then, you’ll have… even more garlic mustard!

There is a better way.

Garlic mustard is easy to pull. If you yank it out of the ground early in the season (i.e. now), you’ll get it before it forms seeds, and it actually tastes… good. There are several recipes for garlic mustard pesto to try, or ravioli if you can’t stand to look at the stuff. Visible or no, garlic mustard has plenty of vitamin A and C. A lot of wild plants, native or no, are quite nutritious. Arthur Haines and Russ Cohen have published useful guides to eating wild plants that actually grow in Massachusetts—unlike all those glossy “North American” guides that tell you how to make chocolate chip cookies out of mesquite and cactus spines.

And remember, as you grind the garlic mustard into edible paste, that you’re not just preparing a gourmet pasta topping; you are helping to make room for the plants that support local caterpillars and insects—which sustain our nation’s birds, foxes, and mice, which help feed–bald eagles! How’s that for biodiversity? Happy America to you!

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