Garlic mustard is an invasive, delicious, non-native plant in North America. Learn how to forage for garlic mustard & make this yummy garlic mustard pesto! You’ll help your native ecosystem at the same time.
Gardening is a great way to enjoy fresh, seasonal produce from your backyard. But if you have any gardening experience at all, you know what it’s like to spend hours tending it only to have drought, disease, or pests wipe out your labors before you got to enjoy them.
Now, that’s not to discourage you from growing your own food or herbs. But I hope it does nudge you to think about other ways to eat from your backyard.
Like foraging wild foods. Especially edible invasives like garlic mustard!
Garlic mustard is native to Europe and 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 and now chokes out native species because there aren’t enough native 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, making it a nearly perfect plant to forage!
Help your native ecosystem and enjoy some fresh, seasonal deliciousness by learning how to forage for garlic mustard. I even have a yummy garlic mustard pesto recipe to help you learn to love this tasty wild food!
How to Find and Identify Garlic Mustard
When foraging, it’s crucial that you positively identify a plant before eating it. Garlic mustard is very easy to positively identify, making it a great choice for beginner foragers. Always be sure that you have permission to forage if you aren’t on your own land and that the ground is unsprayed.
Garlic mustard is actually an invasive plant in North America, so you don’t need to worry about over-harvesting it. Many nature centers, park systems, and preserves even need help eradicating it so native species can thrive! Check with them if you can’t find unsprayed garlic mustard in your own yard.
I find garlic mustard on our small property around the base of trees and large bushes. It tends to grow in woodland areas. When I spy one tall stem of it, there are usually a few more right nearby. You can often spot it along wooded roadways, but this isn’t a good place to forage because of contamination.
When foraging for garlic mustard, look for tall, single, unbranched stems, round and a solid green color. The plants will be anywhere from 1 to slightly over 3 feet tall. The ones around our house are usually 1-2 feet.
Along the stem will be triangular leaves with very noticeable veins and deeply toothed edges. At the top of the plant there will be a cluster of small white flowers with four petals each. Depending on when you find the garlic mustard, it may also have lots of thin seedpods.
First year plants are smaller, though. The leaves are a bit more heart-shaped and they won’t have a tall stem. The easiest plants to identify are the second-year plants that send up tall stalks.
For more helpful photos and identification tips, check out this garlic mustard article from the Ohio State University.
The giveaway for garlic mustard is the smell. The stems, leaves, and flowers smell like (take a guess…) garlic. If you aren’t sure whether or not 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.
How to Use Garlic Mustard
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 ingest a lot of garlic mustard regularly for this to potentially be a problem. And if you’re really worried, cooking should eliminate the cyanide concern.
Other edible foods contain small amounts of cyanogenic compounds, but when you include them in a balanced diet, you don’t suffer any ill-effects. So it is with garlic mustard.
Here are some delicious ways to include foraged garlic mustard in your spring cooking:
- 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. You can use it just like you would any other pesto recipe.
Garlic mustard pesto tastes surprisingly similar to traditional basil pesto. It’s absolutely delicious! You can certainly add some fresh basil or other herbs along with the garlic mustard if you’d like.
- 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
- Dash black pepper
- 1/2-1 cup extra virgin olive oil
- Place all ingredients, using 1/2 cup off 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 the full cup of oil.
Serve as you would traditional pesto. This makes about 1 cup, depending on how much oil you use.
- 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.
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 145Total Fat: 14gSaturated Fat: 2gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 12gCholesterol: 1mgSodium: 160mgCarbohydrates: 3gFiber: 0gSugar: 0gProtein: 1g
Nutrition information is approximate.
Garlic mustard 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!