Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is an easy to spot plant with vibrant heart shaped green leaves that are toothed around the edges, with white cross-shaped flowers. Later in the year, it has upward pointing seed pods that look like thin beans.
It’s known by several other names including hedge garlic, Jack-by-the-hedge, Jack-in-the-bush, garlicwort, mustard-root and poor-man's-mustard, along with many other similar names.
It’s a native plant of Europe, western and central Asia, and north-western Africa, growing in areas as widely spread as northern Scandinavia, Morocco, through to Pakistan and Xinjiang in western China. The plant was introduced to North America by European settlers in the 1800s and, since then, it has been used as a foraged food there but is also scorned as an invasive weed.
Here in the UK, it’s a very common plant to find. Growing in shady places, it’s a real haunter of the old lanes and trackways, growing in hedges and at the edge of woodland. It’s a biennial, so it flowers every other year. It’s a member of the Brassicaceae/cabbage family and can grow to a meter tall depending on conditions.
Garlic mustard as a food: The leaves smell of garlic when bruised or crushed and they make a pleasant addition to a salad with a lingering garlic taste. The flowers have a stronger flavour which points towards the plant’s origins in the Brassica family, tasting reminiscent of mild Brussels sprouts. The young seed pods have a hint of mustard to them when chewed.
The plant loses its garlic flavour when cooked, although one other name worth noting is sauce-alone. It sounds odd at first but is more understandable when we know that it was often used in sauces, and that alone is actually derived from ail meaning garlic.
Interestingly, the seeds of garlic mustard give us the oldest known example of food being spiced. Traces of them were found inside pottery bowls, along with traces of animal and fish residues. The bowls were found in Denmark and Germany and date from nearly 7,000 years ago around the time considered to be the Mesolithic-Neolithic change from hunter-gathering to agriculture.
Traces of meat or fish residues, along with additions used for flavouring makes it easy to imagine that this is the remains of an ancient stew. It’s not hard to take it a step further and realise the seeds were also likely to have been used in the same way in Britain and even more locally, in the area where we are. What’s more, a stew made back then was probably cooked using potboilers which we talked about the other day. It’s fascinating how the seemingly separate things of discovering a potboiler from prehistory, and going on a journey of discovery about garlic mustard, still ends up having a link!
Garlic mustard as a medicinal plant: In folk medicine, garlic mustard seems to have been used as a substitute for garlic itself – certainly in the eastern counties of Britain. In the west, where ramsons (wild garlic) are frequently found, that may have been used instead.
In 1597 the herbalist John Gerard, recommended the plant for colic and kidney stones, but the uses seem to have been mostly associated with the plant’s antiseptic qualities – it was applied externally for a sore throat, chewed for sore gums and mouth ulcers, and also used for wounds. The 17th century herbalist, Culpeper recommended the use of garlic mustard for leg ulcers and similar uses continued into modern times. In 2007, the herbalist Gabrielle Hatfield wrote: “Within living memory, the plant was boiled and made into an ointment for treating bruises and sores.”
Back in modern day medicine, it is also considered to have cancer preventing qualities.
It’s said that the whole plant can be used to obtain a yellow dye. I’ve used quite a few local plant types to naturally dye wool but never garlic mustard – yet. I may well try it sometime and will report back if I do!
For a plant that's often overlooked, it certainly has some pretty good qualities.
Important note: If in doubt, leave it out! As with any foraging, wild food or medicinal plant source, make sure you are completely confident in your plant identification. Some varieties can have very similar poisonous lookalikes.