This spicy little plant is so typical of the brassica/mustard family which includes plants such as cabbages, broccoli, rape, rocket and radish. With a faint whiff of garlic and a gentle spicy mustard flavour, it is a classic hedgerow edible. Its pretty straight forward to identify – serrated heart shaped leaves, flower stalks bearing little clusters of white flowers which give way to the long thin seed pods. And the garlicky smell is a giveaway too! Introduced by the settlers to the US, it is a serious invasive pest. Here in the UK and Europe it behaves itself, being a sole food source for many native insects.
All parts of the plant, the leaves, flowers, stalks and seeds are edible including the roots. The leaves are often added to green salads, sauteed with butter or used in pesto like sauces. They are best eaten at this time of year when the leaves are fresh and young as they can get a bit bitter with age. The roots can be used any time of year and are very similar to horseradish in their fiery pungency. Simply dig up some roots, wash thoroughly, chop into pieces and place in a jar. Fill the jar up with cider vinegar, put a tight fitting lid on and leave to macerate for a few weeks. Strain out the root and you have a spicy vinegar dressing that can also help to clear the sinuses. The green seed pods can be nibbled on raw or if left to mature, harvest the seeds and use as a culinary spice like you would mustard seeds.
The plant gives us plenty more useful medicine too. The leaves are rich in vitamin C , vitamin A, various minerals, plenty of fibre and also sulphur compounds. These sulphurous components are beneficial to the entire respiratory system and can be used for bronchial troubles, coughs, colds, chest infections, sinusitis, catarrhal congestion and even help the skin in chronic conditions like eczema. The leaves can be used as a poultice for ulcers and other infected wounds as it is a significant antiseptic.
Its pungent and fiery nature encourages efficient blood flow around the body making it good for improving circulation in conditions of poor blood supply. Being rich in vitamin C and other bioflavanoids means it is capable of strengthening the structural integrity of capillaries and veins too.
Like other mustard plants, it can be used to relieve the pain and inflammation of rheumatic and arthritic joints. Either wrap the area in wilted fresh leaves or pound the leaves with a little oil to make a crude poultice and apply. This poultice can also be laid over the back and chest to help clear congestion and infection form the lungs. It is a warming and soothing ally to anyone with a chesty cough or cold.
In older times, all members of the mustard family were used to lift the spirits and revive a tired mind and body, it will certainly pep you up when you taste it. As so many of our cultivated brassica plants are credited with superfood status (broccoli, cabbage etc) it follows that adding some garlic mustard to the diet occasionally will be a great boost to overall health, even helping to prevent cancer.
Heres a nice example of a recipe for garlic mustard seedpod salad dressing
All in all, garlic mustard is a handy plant to know. Dry the leaves for future use, preserve the roots in vinegar, eat it straight from the plant but above all, get to know it if you can. It won’t fail to spice up your life.
**Recent studies reveal that the leaves of the plant contain cyanide. This is true of garlic mustard and many other edible plants, including cultivated brassica plants like broccoli. People have been grazing on it for centuries as a seasonal food source so a once or twice weekly meal containing garlic mustard will do no harm. Its certainly not delicious enough (in my opinion) to gorge on!