University of Maryland Extension

Garlic Mustard

Image Credit: 
Jil M. Swearingen, USDI National Park Service

This spring while you are wandering about in the woods, you will probably see a plant with scalloped leaves and white flowers and think it is pretty. But pretty is as pretty does, and this plant, garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), is pretty bad. It even smells bad when you crush the leaves.

Garlic mustard is native to Europe and was probably brought to America by settlers to plant in their vegetable gardens. Yes, garlic mustard is edible, but it is primarily known for being terribly invasive. Garlic mustard out-competes our native spring wildflowers and is also harmful to native critters that depend on the native plants. For example, the rare West Virginia white butterfly feeds primarily on toothworts (Dentaria or Cardamine species), which are also in the mustard family of plants. If the toothwort has been crowded out, the mature butterflies lay their eggs on garlic mustard rather than the toothworts, but the garlic mustard is toxic to the eggs, which fail to hatch.

Garlic mustard is a biennial, forming a low rosette the first year and shooting up to four feet high with clusters of small white four-petaled flowers on the top in May during its second year. The flowers turn into pod-like structures that hold hundreds of seed. The seed can live in the soil for as many as five years before germinating, so it is important to remove the plant before it goes to seed. The whole plant also looks very brown and ugly in the seed stage. When you pull the plant, make certain to get all of its deep roots and bag the plant rather than leaving it as it can form seeds even when pulled!

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