Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata)

 

DESCRIPTION

Garlic mustard is a cool season biennial herb with stalked, triangular to heart-shaped, coarsely toothed leaves that give off an odor of garlic when crushed. First-year plants appear as a rosette of green leaves close to the ground. Rosettes remain green through the winter and develop into mature flowering plants the following spring. Flowering plants of garlic mustard reach from 2 to 3-½ feet in height and produce buttonlike clusters of small white flowers, each with four petals in the shape of a cross. 

NOTE: Recognition of garlic mustard is critical. Several white-flowered native plants, including toothworts (Dentaria), sweet cicely (Osmorhiza claytonii), and early saxifrage (Saxifraga virginica), occur alongside garlic mustard and may be mistaken for it. 

Beginning in May (in the mid-Atlantic Coastal Plain region), seeds are produced in erect, slender pods and become shiny black when mature. By late June, when most garlic mustard plants have died, they can be recognized only by the erect stalks of dry, pale brown seedpods that remain, and may hold viable seed, through the summer. 

ECOLOGICAL THREAT

Garlic mustard poses a severe threat to native plants and animals in forest communities in much of the eastern and midwestern U.S. Many native widlflowers that complete their life cycles in the springtime (e.g., spring beauty, wild ginger, bloodroot, Dutchman's breeches, hepatica, toothworts, and trilliums) occur in the same habitat as garlic mustard. Once introduced to an area, garlic mustard outcompetes native plants by aggressively monopolizing light, moisture, nutrients, soil and space. Wildlife species that depend on these early plants for their foliage, pollen, nectar, fruits, seeds and roots, are deprived of these essential food sources when garlic mustard replaces them. Humans are also deprived of the vibrant display of beautiful spring wildflowers. 

Garlic mustard also poses a threat to one of our rare native insects, the West Virginia white butterfly (Pieris virginiensis). Several species of spring wildflowers known as "toothworts" (Dentaria), also in the mustard family, are the primary food source for the caterpillar stage of this butterfly. Invasions of garlic mustard are causing local extirpations of the toothworts, and chemicals in garlic mustard appear to be toxic to the eggs of the butterfly, as evidenced by their failure to hatch when laid on garlic mustard plants. 

How you can help:

For full species information, visit the Plant Invaders of Mid-Atlantic Natural Areas page or the Plant Conservation Alliance's LEAST WANTED page.