Part II of this blog post, titled Garlic Mustard as an Invasive Plant Medicine can be read HERE
During this period of uncertainty and transformation, I would like to shine some light on one of our local wild plants. Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is a nutritious early spring green, and a remarkable healing agent whose leaves are currently emerging. Its nutritional and medicinal benefits are particularly indicated for many of us at this time, as they contribute to immune integrity and respiratory health.
Garlic mustard can be found around our region in such great abundance that it is regarded by conservation bodies as an invasive plant.
Here I would like to illustrate the ways in which this plant can serve our resilience at this time, in the hopes that more of us will take advantage of the opportunity that it brings. Since it is an area of particular interest to me, I've also created a second post (part II) where I share some of my ideas around the plant's "invasive" tendencies, and what they seem to teach us about resilience and the nature of invasion.
HEALING & NUTRITION
In the face of COVID19, we're hearing from numerous sources about the importance of vitamin C as well as vitamin A intake. In addition to their well-known ability to stimulate and strengthen the immune system, vitamins C and A support the structure and integrity of the membranes that protect our respiratory and digestive tracts as well as our blood vessels. The damage caused to these membranes with virus' entrance into our cells seems to lead to a cascading immune response that brings an overwhelming flood of mucus and inflammatory agents to the area of infiltration. The blockages that result pose significant challenges to breathing, metabolism, and removal of wastes from the system--some of the major (sometimes life threatening) symptoms we're now seeing. Vitamins A and C not only help to prevent the virus' entry into our cells by strengthening the membranes, and not only do they help to fortify immune cell production and immune response in the case of entry, but they also support the blood vessel walls and the mucus membranes that line our respiratory and digestive tracts so that if the virus does enter, the damage it can cause is significantly reduced, and more quickly repaired.
Garlic mustard is known for its impressive vitamin A levels, and it has been shown to contain 3-4 times as much vitamin C as oranges.
Not only does it strengthen immunity and support tissue integrity, garlic mustard is a potent antimicrobial agent as well. This is due in part, to its many sulphur compounds. These can be detected in the sulphury smell that we find in most Mustard (or Cabbage) family plants. Their presence creates a less-than-hospitable environment for bacterial and fungal growth (see more on this in part II of this article), while also stimulating immune function in a number of ways. One of those ways is by gently increasing heat in the body. This makes the immune cells work, and reproduce more quickly. Generally speaking, maintaining a higher temperature will increase the body's immune capacity (which is why we may develop a fever when we get an infection). In the early days of spring, when the damp & cold weather can easily permeate us, garlic mustard's contribution of warmth helps to protect the body (and particularly the lungs) from infection.
Many descriptions of COVID19 in the lungs characterize it as having a profoundly "cold" effect. The respiratory passages are stuck, not only because of a buildup of mucus and fluids, but also because there is not enough heat to move things through, so the fluids congeal. Hot drinks are encouraged, as well as warming herbs like ginger, onions, garlic and thyme. Once again, the warming action of garlic mustard fits this indication to a tee.
Like all Mustard family plants, garlic mustard is known to encourage the clearance of phlegm build up in the lungs. We can feel this when we taste the spicy leaves, roots and seeds, which tend to "cut" mucus and move it out of the system. When I work with clients who tend towards lots of mucus build up, I encourage them to eat radishes, turnips, horseradish and mustard greens regularly. (While on the subject of clearing mucus, I will mention that avoiding dairy and other creamy/fatty foods will often significantly help to reduce build up as well)
In addition to its spiciness, garlic mustard also has a slightly bitter flavour. The mild bitterness is helpful because it gently but effectively stimulates all aspects of the digestive function. Improved digestion means improved absorption of many the nutrients provided by the plant, as well as those we take in from all the other foods & supplements we ingest.
The bitter flavour also supports the liver in its clearance of wastes and toxic elements from the system. Liver clearance is a crucial aspect of fighting off pathogens. A system overburdened with wastes and toxicity is an immuno-compromised system. Also, when the body is fighting infection, lots of waste is continually generated by the immune system, and this can cause further damage and invite in more infection if the liver fails to clear it out fast enough.
PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS OF GARLIC MUSTARD'S OFFERINGS
So how do we work with this abundant plant to make use of its offerings?
With relative ease. The entire plant is edible, from root all the way up to seed. It is safe to consume in abundance (although I would recommend that folks with low thyroid function eat it cooked more often than raw---and the same goes for all foods in this family). It can be easily dug up, and either consumed fresh, dried for future use or preserved in vinegar (or in vodka if you want to make an herbal tincture).
We love to include it in our meals as a fresh spring green vegetable. The young leaves, stalks and roots can be added to stir fries, pastas or blended into pesto. They're also delicious pan cooked on their own with lemon juice and soy sauce. They do have a garlicky flavour as the name suggests, and their mild bitterness resembles that of rapini. In fact, when the stems grow tall and immature buds develop, the bitterness is slightly reduced, and the plant is almost identical to rapini. Fresh leaves can be added to raw salads, and they blend nicely in potato salads where a mustard dressing might enhance the flavour nicely. More recently I've experimented with adding the roots to some home-made kimchi and saurkraut. The enzymes and beneficial bacteria on these fermented foods should help to make the nutrients in the roots that much more accessible. A spicy condiment similar to horseradish can also be made from the roots.
One of my favourite ways to preserve the healing properties of garlic mustard is steeped in vinegar. Its spicy garlicky flavour comes through, along with the plant's myriad trace minerals. I use apple cider vinegar for its numerous health benefits. The method is simple. I fill a jar half full with the chopped up plant, and then pour cider vinegar in, filling it to the top. The plant infuses in the vinegar, out of direct light, for 3-4 weeks. I then add this vinegar to my salad dressings regularly, and take it by the teaspoonful if I need an immune boost.
To use it as an expectorant to help clear phlegm from the lungs, I would also take a teaspoon of this infused vinegar, or make a tea using a handful of fresh leaves and roots per cup (if it's too bitter, the tea could be blended with mint, or honey could be added). It would also be effective just eat the the fresh leaves and roots as they are.
HOW TO FIND IT
Garlic mustard can be found growing in woodlands, tree lines and other shaded or partly shaded areas including lawns and gardens. It has heart shaped leaves with prominent veins, and serrated edges. The leaves have smooth stems which come up in a basal rosette from a single white tap root. The plants tend to grow in clusters, and they may have a slight purple-green colour in colder weather. When the leaves are crushed, they give off a garlic smell. This is a key identifying feature of the plant. In its second year of growth, garlic mustard sends up flowering stalks in late May-June. At this stage they resemble broccolini or rapini florets until they open into small, four-petaled white flowers. After flowering, they produce long seed pods around early-mid July, and these are edible as well (though significantly spicier than the rest of the plant). In fall, newly seeded growth returns and the plant is at a similar stage to that of early spring.
The plant seeds itself with vigour, so harvesting before seeds are mature is a way to help keep its invasive tendencies in check. When harvesting garlic mustard, I encourage digging it out from the root whenever possible. As with all harvests, before taking the plant I encourage taking a moment to be mindful of the plant, and of the environment we're in. With this mindfulness, I encourage clarifying our intentions for how we would like to make use of the plant's benefits. And finally, I ask that we harvest with respect, acknowledging with gratitude this gift of the earth.
For a discussion on the plant's invasive tendencies, and how we might view these too as a vehicle for healing CLICK HERE to read Part II: Garlic Mustard as an Invasive Plant Medicine
Scott, Timothy Lee; Invasive Plant Medicine; Healing Arts Press, Rochester Vermont, 2010
Thayer, Samuel, Nautre's Garden: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting and Preparing Edible Wild Plants; Foragers' Harvest; Birchwood WI, 2010