Invasives 101: My Battle With Garlic Mustard

Shari Altman

Garlic mustard
Photo by Shari Altman

It all started when I was sitting in my Invasives class as a part of the Extension Master Gardener program. I looked up at the screen, stared at a tall spindly flowering plant, and nearly blushed. Last year, I had unknowingly let garlic mustard grow wild and rampant in our yard. In fact, I had a fondness for its quirky, slender seed pods and its simple, white blossoms. In my ignorance, I had let an invasive species spread all over the beautiful, old farmland where we live.

Well, no longer! After that class, I became a woman with a mission. Eliminate the garlic mustard! It's my new battle cry, and I'm spreading the word. I hope you'll join me.

Let's back up just a bit and talk about invasive plants. Invasives are simply non-native plants that tend to take over and cause economic, environmental, and ecological impacts. These invasives compete directly with the native plants in the landscape and because they usually have no enemies, they spread and spread quickly!

It's not just Vermont that has a problem with garlic mustard. The majority of states lists garlic mustard as an invasive. Check out this map from The University of Georgia Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health to see if garlic mustard is considered an invasive where you live. 

How did it get here? Garlic mustard is a native plant in Europe and was brought over to New England by early settlers as a potted herb. Eventually, this plant "escaped" and because it produces a ton of seeds, it reproduced quickly. Deer don't like this plant and neither do most insects. There's nothing in our natural ecosystem to keep it in check, and so it grows and grows, often taking over the landscape at the expense of the native plants.

Why is this a problem? Many native species depend on native plants. When the garlic mustard crowds out the native plants, the native species suffer.

Today, I want to teach you how to identify garlic mustard. There are a few characteristics that make identifying garlic mustard a snap:

  • It grows in what's known as a basal rosette, meaning that the leaves grow in a circular pattern around a central stem.
  • It has both kidney-shaped and triangular-shaped leaves that are toothed.
  • The bottom portion of the stem near the roots is purple.
  • Its leaves smell like garlic when crushed.
  • It has four-petaled, white blossoms.
  • In its second year (when it flowers), it will be about one to three feet tall.

Lower leaves are usually more kidney-shaped.

Second-year leaves are more triangular.

This plant has a purplish stem near the roots.

Photo by Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Identification is the first step toward elimination. Join me for part two of this saga next week when I'll tell you all about my own personal battle with this invasive species.

Have you seen garlic mustard where you live?

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