In Spring, tall upright stems with neatly spaced leaves, topped with small clusters of white flowers, appear in the shade of hedgerows, giving this plant its other common names: hedge mustard or jack-by-the-hedge.
The plant is a biennial, taking two years to complete its life cycle. In its first, non-flowering year the plant forms a low growing cluster of heart-shaped, leaves, heavily veined with serrated edges. In the following year a single upright stem grows up to about 3 feet tall from this base. The leaves become more pointed and almost triangular in shape and are spaced alternately on the unbranched stem. They are a bright, almost lime-green colour, which really makes them show up a in shady areas (where they are growing in sunnier spots the leaves turn a darker green).
The flowers are tiny, each one with four white petals, arranged in a cross shape. The flower clusters form at the top of the stems and are followed by long seedpods.
Garlic mustard is native to Europe, Asia and parts of North Africa. Here in the UK it is an important food plant for both the orange tip and green-veined white butterflies, which lay their eggs on the plants and the caterpillars feed on the leaves. Introduced to the USA long ago, probably by early settlers for food the plant has become a serious invasive weed in some areas, with no natural predators to keep it in check.
Garlic mustard totally unrelated to garlic (it is a member of the cabbage family. The leaves do smell faintly of garlic when crushed and have a mild garlic flavour. Interestingly, Some people report an unpleasant bitter aftertaste, completely undetected by others. For those who do like the flavour, the young leaves can be chopped and added to salads and used instead of mint to make an alternative sauce to serve with lamb. Historically it was used to make a sauce to accompany sea fish – this gives another old name: sauce-alone. The seeds are mildly peppery and can be used as a mild alternative to commercial mustard.
Herbal and folk medicine has employed garlic mustard to treat asthma and other lung complaints and as an antiseptic. As with all foraged wild plants, it is important to follow some common sense safety guidelines
- Don’t touch or pick any plant unless you are ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN that it is safe to use, and not poisonous.
- Don’t pick anything unless it is abundant
- Only pick small amounts and no more than you need
- Don’t pick if there is a risk of pesticide/weedkiller or other contamination, including from traffic or other forms of pollution.
- Always get permission from the landowner.
- Avoid areas which may be soiled by animals (wild or farm animals or pets)
- Wash plants thoroughly
One of my favourite sights on a sunny Spring day is to see the shoots of garlic mustard standing to attention in front of a hedge or on a woodland edge, with a pair of orange-tip butterflies fluttering overhead.