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April 20, 2013

Garlic Mustard: Pretty, but still a pest

ANDERSON, Ind. — Like an unwelcome houseguest, Garlic Mustard is one of those plants that likes to move in, spread out and get comfortable.

“Garlic Mustard is an exotic invasive plant,” said head naturalist DeWayne Hook at Mounds State Park in Anderson. “It grows very quickly, it’s very prolific. Every year it just encroaches more and more.”

It’s so prolific that it keeps the more desirable growth, like spring wildflowers, at bay. That’s why it’s time for the annual Garlic Mustard Pull on April 27, a time where volunteers meet up at the park to help pull up the pesky plants. The Garlic Mustard pull was originally set for April 13, but growth was just barely beginning.

“It really hasn’t warmed up until last week,” said Hook. He noted that wildflowers have also been delayed. “All the plants are running behind.”

Hook admits that although it’s a pest, Garlic Mustard is a pretty plant that usually grows to about 18 inches high.

“It’s got pretty little white flowers with four petals. It smells like garlic and onion.”  Hence, the colloquial name for what’s scientifically called Alliaria petiolata. Nevertheless, Hook observed, “When it comes in, it takes over.”

That’s because it’s not a plant that has any real enemies in North America, plus a single plant can produce thousands of seeds.  

“Nothing’ll eat it, not even the deer,” said Mounds seasonal naturalist Steve Kenaga.

Michael O’Donnell, Purdue Extension educator, agriculture and natural resources, said that’s the case for many invasive plants. “There aren’t many natural predators for an invasive species. Many of them can be extremely prolific.”

Hook said that the general method for dealing with the pesky plant is to pull it, roots and all, out of the ground. He’s watching the development of a theory that suggests it may be possible to eradicate it simply by cutting just below the blooms, but the theory has yet to be confirmed. Hook noted that herbicides will also kill the plant, but they kill about everything else, too.

While the plant may be a pest, it’s also got practical uses for those in the know.  Garlic Mustard may have come to this country with European settlers who used it as an edible green. Even today, the herb is used by some in salads or pesto, and has started turning up at farmers markets.

“It’s used as a flavoring,” said Kelly Borgmann, executive assistant for the Red-Tail Land Conservancy.

Mounds State Park interpretive naturalist Steve Thompson has sampled the herb. “It has a very strong garlic flavor, but it’s kind of bland at the same time.”

Whether you plan to pitch in and help make room for other plant growth at the park, or you have a unique pesto recipe in mind,  you’ll learn to identify the unique plant during the “Pull.”

If you go

What: Garlic Mustard Pull

Where: Mounds State Park

When: Saturday, April 27, starting at 9 a.m., but volunteers can jump in any time

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