Here’s a flower that doesn’t know what it wants to be – so it’s both! It’s name comes from its edible leaves which taste both of garlic and mustard (weirdly!) and it’s been used as a flavouring for centuries. In fact it’s one of the oldest culinary ingredients used around Europe: some tiny remains of this plant have been found in pottery dating back thousands of years ago in what we now call Denmark and north-eastern Germany. Wow – that fact blows me away and I look at this plant with a new fascination.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the leaves were added to sauces to accompany lamb and fish; but today, they’re are more likely to be found nestling amongst other edible leaves in a spring salad. The garlic bit of the name comes from the smell that the young leaves and stems give off when you crush them (go on, try it!).
I wouldn’t recommend adding the flowers to a sweet-smelling cortege though. Although the flowers can pollinate themselves (a handy trick), the plant also uses midges and hoverflies to fertilise them so they smell unpleasant to attract these insects.
But the uses for garlic mustard don’t stop there: in traditional medicine it was used as a diuretic, the plant was also made into a disinfectant, and our ancestors found it really helpful for controlling erosion and would deliberately plant it in places where they wanted to stabilise the soil.
It’s not just humans that find this versatile plant tasty: 7 fungi and 69 insects feed on it – including butterflies, moths, leaf beetles, and hoverflies. The orange tip butterfly, which is also around now, lays it eggs on the leaves as its caterpillars are partial to chomping on the seed pods – which they look just like.
The leaves start growing as early as September and seem to be able to survive cold weather. They could be mistaken for nettle leaves as both look very similar: but garlic mustard’s are more heart-shaped and don’t have any hairs whereas nettle leaves are covered with them (it’s the hairs which cause the stinging sensation when they touch you).
Garlic mustard’s white flowers don’t appear until the plant’s been growing for two years (botanists call this a biennial plant). In early spring, usually March – April, the white flower heads emerge at the top of the flower stem, each made of lots of small, four-petalled flowers. The four petals are the giveaway that it’s one of the cabbage family (like its cousin the cuckoo flower) which mustard also belongs to.
Normally, it prefers to grow in shady, damp places in woodlands and hedgerows – hence, it’s other name of jack-by-the-hedge. However, as usual with wildlife, this plant hasn’t read the textbooks and I’ve seen it growing alongside walls in streets and urban areas. I love the fact that each day, I can walk past this ‘everyday’ pretty flower which might have been growing in the same area thousands of years ago when a stone age human was also passing by. Mind blown.