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Foraging for Greens: Garlic Mustard

The amount of food, nutrition and medicine readily available to us through foraging in and around our backyards is no less than astounding. One wild green, commonly considered an invasive weed, is garlic mustard. Topping the list of nutritious greens, garlic mustard trumps spinach, broccoli leaves, collards, turnip greens, domesticated mustard and other leafy greens in fiber, beta-carotene, vitamin C, vitamin E and zinc; it’s also high in omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, iron and manganese. When crushed, the leaves produce the distinctive aroma and flavor of garlic. Horseradish is a secondary scent that can be identified when the roots of an extracted plant are scratched.

Garlic mustard can be found in yards along fence lines and in the woods; it grows best in shady areas. In the spring, leaves sprout from its overwintering roots. The first-year leaves have a round or kidney shape and travel along the ground. The second-year plant, more familiar to most people, presents a stalk and triangularly shaped leaves, as well as flowers with four white petals at the top of the stem.

As summer progresses, the leaves become slightly more bitter, but no less nutritious. Nearly the whole plant, from flower to root, is edible, and it has no poisonous look-alikes, making it a great wild food to add into one’s diet.

Many people shy away from bitter foods. A review of research, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in December 2000 explains: “Plant-based phenols, flavonoids, isoflavones, terpenes, and glucosinolates are almost always bitter, acrid, or astringent. In addition to their bactericidal or biological activity, these substances may provide a defense against predators by making the plant unpalatable.” Many of these compounds are healthy in small doses because they have antioxidant and anticarcinogenic properties including tumor-blocking activity that link them with lower rates of cancer and coronary heart disease.

According to herbal practitioners, such as Janet Zand, a doctor of Oriental medicine and the co-founder of Zand Herbal Formulas, in Boulder, Colorado, when the tongue tastes bitterness, the taste buds signal the brain and in turn the gastrointestinal system to release the hormone gastrin, which increases gastric acid, bile flow and numerous other digestive tract secretions.

Garlic mustard makes a delicious substitute for both garlic and basil in a pesto. To prepare garlic mustard pesto, gather about two cups of the leaves and combine them in a food processor with a half cup of olive oil, one-third cup of walnuts or pine nuts and one cup of parmesan cheese. Add salt and pepper to taste.Shannon Francis

Shannon Francis is the founder of Resiliency Training, a company dedicated to teaching others outdoor survival skills, wild edible identification and preparation, and DIY household and body care products. She is available for private bookings. For more information, call 262-515-5331 or visit

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