Garlic Mustard for Spring Congestion

Turn this nuisance weed into useful food and medicine fitting for the springtime sniffles.

by Dawn Combs

Garlic Mustard for Spring Congestion - Photo by Bill Higham/Flickr (

It’s spring, and already plans are being made in my area to get large groups of people together to battle some of the non-native invasive species conservationists love to hate. Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), also called Jack-by-the-hedge or sauce alone, is one of the first of these plants to pop up each year.

If you’ve ever grown broccoli from seed, you will recognize the small sprouts of garlic mustard in the wild places in your area. I don’t necessarily have an issue with the efforts to remove the plant. It, like the dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), was introduced to North America by settlers who intentionally brought it with them to the New World as a medicinal food source. These plants did not have an established place in the ecosystem here, so there weren’t any natural checks and balances for them. Unfortunately, we stopped harvesting dandelion and the garlic mustard for food and medicine and turned our backs on them. In true petulant revenge, these plants began to run amuck, bullying other species and being selfish with the resources.

I think we defeat ourselves with our current attitude toward invasive plants. We roll up our sleeves and attack the problem without trying to understand our enemy. What a waste! All that food and medicine simply thrown away or composted. The truth is that if we resumed our end of the relationship with these plants there wouldn’t be a problem. If everyone were eating their weeds, there would be less of them to spread seed and they would no longer be acting out like children demanding attention.

Garlic Mustard for Spring Congestion - Photo by Wendell Smith/Flickr (

Do Not Plant

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I certainly don’t advise that you attempt to plant some garlic mustard this year. They actually don’t do well in cultivated garden soil. They prefer to live in the wilder areas of your yard and community. They like shaded areas and prefer wet soils. The plant is a biannual and only reproduces by seed. Instead, I’d suggest that if you are invited into one of our parklands to route out the garlic mustard, please take it home and eat it. Seriously, try it in a pesto and I guarantee you’ll be sending me a thank-you note. If you have a patch in your yard, manage it. Harvest some for the roots, eat freely of the leaves and grab as many flowers as you can. All parts are delicious.

Using Garlic Mustard

Garlic mustard is sweetest in the spring. The leaves are slightly spicy and can be used fresh or cooked. They were traditionally used to lift the spirits and warm the digestion. I find it especially fitting that the root and leaves can be infused into an oil and used on the chest for respiratory complaints, such as bronchitis. It is not a coincidence that this plant is abundant at the time of year when most people get the transitional cough and congestion. The plant is very high in vitamins A and C, and therefore, is also supportive of both our immune system and our adrenals.

This year, try to spare some love for the plants people tend to hate. Remember, they were brought here to serve a purpose. Let’s put them back into service rather than waste them.

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