In mid spring each year, signs start popping up along the road side announcing that it's time for the annual garlic mustard pull. In the library there are signs made by school children, in the center of town more professional placards make the announcement. It's a right of spring. On the appointed day, people of all ages can be spotted, bent in two, or down on their knees among the poison ivy and skunk cabbage that grow along our roads. There's an odd air of festivity about it all.
For years I've believed garlic mustard was an herb that is only here for a short time, like strawberries. So each year those in the know gather it when it's at it's peak. This year, I picked up a handout on the annual plant pull, and as you've probably already guessed, I learned I was as wrong as wrong can be.
Let me share with you a few of the things I learned:
- The Europeans brought it over to use in cooking and medicines. Of course nothing here eats it, so it just spreads and spreads unless people step in. So far it sounds a lot like dandelions.
- This next fact is so fantastic I have to quote it "One plant can produce up to 6,000 seeds that can remain viable in the soil for up to 7 years!" (Lincolnconcervation.org)
- Once the plant has flowered, it will go to seed (see above) even if you rip it out of the ground. So proper disposal is important.
- Why does it matter if this plant spreads? "garlic mustard eliminates native plants, which wildlife depend on, and it can stunt the growth of native trees....Even worse, garlic mustard roots produce a chemical that prevents other plants from growing in the soil!" (Lincolnconservation.org).
For such a predatory plant, it looks quite dainty. (click the link for more photos). The leaves are like a rounded heart, similar to the leaves on violets, and the flowers are tiny and white. Just like purple loosestrife (the plant that is taking over our marsh lands), garlic mustard is lovely until you realize all the damage it does.
I took a quick look around my yard and realized most of what was in bloom, was probably an invading, pernicious force. I crumpled the leaves to check for the tell-tale garlic odor, and hoped that what I had was another white wildflower. It was growing so well, I hated to pull it. But the facts couldn't be denied, my yard was under attack.
I pulled the first few clumps reluctantly. I've been trying to get things to grow in my incredibly shady lot for years and now there was something not just growing but thriving! I ripped clump after clump from the ground, and something changed. I was on a mission. I got a thrill watching the landscape change under the work of my hands, and it felt good to do something that was so unequivocally "the right thing". How often does that happen? I ripped and I pulled and I grabbed anything that looked remotely similar to this charming villain. By the time I was done, I'd gathered 5 overflowing bags from my tiny (maybe 1/8 acre) lot.
Those were grocery store paper bags, not the giant lawn bags. It would be truly frightening if my tiny lot had produced that much.
Now I see garlic mustard everywhere,
along my commute,
in front of the post office,
in my neighbor's lawn,
at an open house.
I'm tempted to rip out each and every stalk, a sort of reverse Johnny Appleseed.