The Incredible, Edible Weed

July 28, 2008

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An invasive plant called Garlic Mustard is taking over forests in the Eastern half of the country, and it could be causing long term damage. Julie Grant reports that some people are getting smart in their efforts to get rid of Garlic Mustard.

Brad Steman spends a lot of time in the woods. He likes the serenity. But as we walk through this park, he winces. The entire forest floor is carpeted with one plant and one plant only: Garlic Mustard. Thousands of them. The thin green stalks are as tall as our ankles.

Steman calls it “the evil weed.” Its triangle-shaped leaves shade out wildflowers, so they don't grow. Even worse, Steman says Garlic Mustard poisons baby trees.

STEMAN: So a forest filled with Garlic Mustard you will see very little regeneration of that forest, very few seedlings, small trees. So looking down the line, once those large trees start dying off there's nothing to replace them. And that now is the greatest threat to our Eastern forests.

Steman says every year Garlic Mustard is spreading farther into the woods. Anywhere the ground is disturbed.

STEMAN: So here's a big stand of it along a trail. This is typically where it starts. This is thick. This is a healthy stand. There's potential there for an explosion. So we should probably pull some. I'll pull some; you don't have to pull any.

Thank goodness he's doing it, that looks it looks like tedious work. Steman crouches down and starts pulling them out of the ground, roots and all. He sprayed herbicide on some of it, and so far this season he's filled 35 big garbage bags with Garlic Mustard plants. He's sick of weeding. But it doesn't look like he's made a dent here. All along the Eastern half of the U.S. and Canada people are pulling up Garlic Mustard from parks and just throwing it away. But some people don't like this approach.

GAIL: All these people are very shortsighted when they're doing that.

Peter Gail is a specialist in edible weeds.

GAIL: They're not looking for other alternative uses, creative ways to use these plants that would be profitable, that would be productive.

Gail says: “If you can't beat ‘em, eat ‘em.” People brought Garlic Mustard to the U.S. in the mid-1800s because they liked it, to eat. And they even used it for medicine. Yep. That same nasty weed.

Gail says today Garlic Mustard just needs an image makeover. Some weeds have become big stars in the cooking world. A few years ago Purselane was just an unwanted vine, with its fleshy, shiny leaves matted to the ground. Now it's known as a nutritional powerhouse, and is the darling of New York and L.A. eateries. Gail wants that kind of fame for Garlic Mustard.

GAIL: This is a Garlic Mustard Ricotta dip, Garlic Mustard salsa, stuffed Garlic Mustard leaves - these are all things you can do with this stuff. It's fantastic!

Garlic Mustard seeds taste like mustard, the leaves taste like garlic and the roots are reminiscent of horseradish. Gail says people should go after Garlic Mustard in the parks, but then they should take it to farm markets to sell.

GAIL: My normal statement is that the best way to demoralize weeds is to eat them. Because when you eat them they know you like them and they don't want to be there anymore, and so they leave.

ambi: blender sound

Today Gail decides to blend a pesto using the early spring leaves. He picks every last Garlic Mustard in his yard to make a batch.

GAIL: Well there it is, garlic mustard pesto. And it isn't bad, is it?”
GRANT: It's delicious.

For The Environment Report, I'm Julie Grant.