Today’s Factismal: A single Garlic Mustard plant can make nearly 8,000 seeds.
If you had lived in Europe in the 1700s and wanted a little something spicy in your salad, you probably would have gone outside and grabbed some leaves off of a low rosette of greenery that your folks told you was called Jack-by-the-hedge. You could chop the garlicky leaves up in your salad, or mince them into a pesto, or grind the seeds into a mustard-like paste. If you had an ulcer or sore, you’d make a poultice of the leaves and use it as a bandaid. And if you had moved from Europe to America to find a better life (or hide from your creditors), then you might have brought a few seeds of this handy-dandy herb with you for your garden.
But what is handy-dandy in Europe can get out of control in North America, as anyone who has been harassed by a starling can attest. In Europe, the garlic mustard plant was an important part of the ecosystem, forming a habitat and food source for about 70 different species of insect. In North America, it is an invasive species that displaces native plants such as wild ginger and bloodroot. Those plants are the food source for many different species of butterfly, amphibian, and even deer; as a result, the invasion of garlic mustard can change a thriving ecosystem into a wasteland of nothing but garlic mustard.
The threat posed by this invasive is spreading. Though it has taken the plant some 150 years, it has now been reported in 29 different states and is working its way toward you. The plant has managed this feat by being sneaky and by by being prolific. It takes a garlic mustard two years to mature; during the first year, it is a small, leafy plant that morphs into a spike of flowers and seeds in its second year. A single plant can produce nearly 8,000 sticky seeds that are carried near and far by unwitting animals, and the seeds can germinate up to five years after they ripen. And upwards of 1,800 garlic mustard plants can sprout in a single patch one square foot large!
If you’d like to help hunt down this invader (either for lunch or just because you prefer your forests without invasives), then head over to the Global Garlic Mustard Field Survey. They’ll show you how to identify garlic mustard, tell you how to combat it, and listen to your tales of the forest (especially if they feature the defeat of the evil garlic mustard).