Learn how to forage for garlic mustard & make this yummy garlic mustard pesto! You’ll get a delicious food and help your native ecosystem at the same time.
Every spring, bright green leaves like to pop up in forests and along woodland edges all over North America.
Pick one, rub it between your fingers, and you’ll quickly learn how to identify garlic mustard. The signature garlic scent gives it away.
This wild green is edible, abundant, and invasive. Meaning it’s a perfect plant to forage!
Learning how to forage for garlic mustard is a great way to keep this plant from taking over native habitats. And when you can turn it into a delicious garlic mustard pesto, you’ll be extra motivated to gather up as much as you can!
Garlic Mustard: The Perfect Food to Forage
Most wild foods are carefree, too, so plant diseases and garden pests leave them alone. Unlike some beloved garden plants (cabbage worms, I’m looking at you).
Garlic mustard is one of these carefree wild plants. Nothing bothers it. But there’s another reason you can forage as much of it as you’d like. It’s highly invasive.
Native to Europe, garlic mustard was brought to North America by early settlers who likely used it for food and medicine. But as often happens with non-native species, garlic mustard took off.
Now, it tends to choke out native plant species because there aren’t enough local species to keep it under control.
Except for people. Garlic mustard is completely edible and actually quite delicious. It’s easy to identify, plentiful in most woodland areas, and nearly impossible to eradicate. You couldn’t ask for a better plant to forage!
Help your native ecosystem and enjoy some fresh, seasonal deliciousness by learning how to forage for garlic mustard. The yummy garlic mustard pesto recipe coming up will help you learn to love this tasty wild food.
How to Find and Identify Garlic Mustard
Where Garlic Mustard Likes to Grow
Before you start looking for garlic mustard, check on two important questions:
- Do I have permission to forage here?
- Is this land contaminated with any pesticides, chemicals, or hazardous waste?
Obviously, both of these are easy to answer if you’re harvesting on your own property. But if you’re not, you need to settle them before you proceed.
Garlic mustard likes to grow in woodlands and along wooded roadways. In fact, in the springtime, you can easily find entire roadway edges cluttered with garlic mustard. However, this isn’t a good place to harvest due to contamination from vehicle exhaust, salt and deicers, and other chemicals.
I find garlic mustard on our small property around the base of trees and large bushes. When I spy one tall stem of it, there are usually a few more nearby.
If you can’t find garlic mustard on your own property, check with local nature centers, park systems, and preserves. These organizations often need help removing garlic mustard so native species can thrive. When you forage for it, it’s a win for you and a win for the park system!
Garlic Mustard Identification & Harvesting
When foraging, it’s crucial that you positively identify a plant before eating it. Garlic mustard is easy to correctly identify, though. Even if you’ve never harvested a wild plant before, you can identify garlic mustard.
When foraging for garlic mustard, second-year plants are easiest to identify. In the early to middle spring, look for
- Tall, single, unbranched stems around 1-2 feet tall (though some ambitious plants can grow much taller).
- Small white flower clusters with 4 petals on each flower towards the top of the plant.
- Triangular leaves with noticeable veins and deeply toothed edges that grow up the stem.
- Bright green color.
- Thin seed pods where flowers were previously if you’re harvesting later in the spring.
First-year plants are a bit harder to identify if you’re new to garlic mustard. The leaves look like kidneys and are more heart-shaped than triangular. They also won’t grow from a tall stem. Instead, the plant grows in a rosette close to the ground, reaching around 6 inches tall.
For more helpful photos and identification tips, check out this garlic mustard article from the Ohio State University.
Whether you’re harvesting first- or second-year plants, the giveaway for garlic mustard is the smell. The stems, leaves, and flowers smell like (take a guess…) garlic. If you aren’t sure if you’ve found garlic mustard, just crush some of the plant in your hands and give it a sniff. If it has a mild garlic scent, you’ve got a winner.
The best plants to harvest for food are mature first-year rosettes or young second-year plants. Like everything in the mustard family, the plant tends to get bitter as it ages.
Harvest by pulling the whole plant out by the roots. You can usually get the entire root out easily. Be careful not to scatter more garlic mustard seed while you forage since it likes to take over.
Unlike most other foraged plants, you don’t have to worry about overharvesting garlic mustard. Take as much as you’d like!
Yikes! Is Garlic Mustard Poisonous?
Even if you’re interested in using garlic mustard, you might have a lingering worry:
Does garlic mustard contain cyanide?
I’d eaten garlic mustard for years before I came across this concern. And as it turns out, yes, garlic mustard contains a cyanogenic compound.
But before you panic, there are a few important things to remember.
- This compound is most concentrated in young, first-year leaves.
- You have to regularly ingest a lot of garlic mustard for this to potentially be a problem.
- And if you’re really worried, cooking should eliminate the cyanide concern, just like it does for elderberries when you make homemade elderberry syrup.
Other edible foods contain small amounts of cyanogenic compounds, like almonds, cassava, and stone fruits. But when you eat them in normal amounts and include them in a balanced diet, you don’t suffer any ill effects. So it is with garlic mustard.
Tasty Ways to Use Garlic Mustard in the Kitchen
Here are some delicious ways to include foraged garlic mustard in your spring cooking:
- Use it in my zesty wild chimichurri recipe that’s perfect for spring foraging.
- Add chopped leaves to biscuits (like these Easy Sourdough Drop Biscuits), pizza crust, or bread dough for extra flavor.
- Spice up chicken salad, potato salad, or tuna salad with a handful of chopped garlic mustard leaves.
- Give your seasonal spring soup a little kick by replacing usual greens like spinach and kale with garlic mustard
- Dice up a generous handful of leaves and add them to your favorite tomato sauce or pasta dish.
- Up the flavor of your meatloaf or meatball recipe by including some finely diced garlic mustard.
- Blend a few garlic mustard leaves into your favorite hummus or veggie dip.
- Make a yummy garlic mustard pesto with the recipe that follows (and scroll all the way down for a printable recipe card).
Yummy Garlic Mustard Pesto Recipe
Hands down, my favorite way to eat garlic mustard is in this delicious pesto recipe. It tastes surprisingly similar to traditional basil pesto and you can use it in the same way.
You can also add some fresh basil, young dandelion greens, or other herbs along with the garlic mustard if you’d like. I usually only use garlic mustard, but adding other green herbs gives you an opportunity to tweak the flavor to your preferences.
Disclosure: Affiliate links are included. I can earn a commission if you take action on an affiliate link, but your cost always remains the same (or lower).
- 1 cup washed and drained garlic mustard leaves, moderately packed
- 2 tablespoons other fresh herbs, like oregano, basil, or thyme (optional)
- 1 large garlic clove
- 1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
- 2 tablespoons toasted sunflower seeds (you can also use almonds, walnuts, or the traditional pine nuts)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt (I love Redmond Real Salt, use code THRIVE for 15% off your order)
- Dash black pepper
- 1/2-1 cup extra virgin olive oil
- Place all ingredients, using 1/2 cup of the olive oil, in a food processor.
- Turn on and process until smooth. You may need to stop and scrape the sides of the bowl once or twice.
- Check the consistency of your pesto and add more oil if desired, pulsing the processor to combine. I like this with a full cup of oil.
- Use as you would traditional pesto and store any leftovers in the fridge.
This makes about 1 cup, depending on how much oil you use.
Printable Recipe Card for Garlic Mustard Pesto
- 1 cup washed & drained garlic mustard leave
- 1 large garlic clove
- 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 2 tablespoons toasted sunflower seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon quality sea salt
- Dash black pepper
- 1 cup extra virgin olive oil
- Place all ingredients, except 1/2 cup of olive oil, in a food processor.
- Process ingredients until a smooth paste forms, scraping the sides of the bowl once or twice.
- Add as much of the remaining oil as desired to reach your preferred consistency, then pulse to combine.
- Serve as you would regular pesto. Refrigerate any remaining pesto in a covered dish.
If you find garlic mustard too spicy on its own, you can substitute some of the garlic mustard leaves for fresh parsley, spinach, or other green herbs.
Nutrition Information:Yield: 16 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 145Total Fat: 14gSaturated Fat: 2gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 12gCholesterol: 1mgSodium: 160mgCarbohydrates: 3gFiber: 0gSugar: 0gProtein: 1g
Nutrition information is approximate.
Sometimes gardening isn’t possible. Even when it is, gardening doesn’t always end up as you hope. Despite your best efforts, cabbage moths are really good at laying eggs in your kale.
But cabbage worms don’t bother garlic mustard.
Foraging this wild green and turning it into garlic mustard pesto lets you enjoy fresh food from the backyard with little work on your part. And native plants will thank you for removing it and giving them extra room to thrive!