There are some things in the natural world that seem to pass you by for years, until, by some unknown shift in awareness, you begin to notice them. Alliaria petiolata is a very common spring wild plant in roadside verges around here, and must have been present in my childhood, but I only began to notice it a few years ago. It’s common name is garlic mustard, after the taste and smell of its leaves, which are edible.
Wild garlic (Allium Ursinum) is normally the thing that gets foragers most excited, and sends them skipping into the woods each spring in derangement for pesto. But garlic mustard might also be a workable substitute. I tried a leaf yesterday morning, plucked a safe distance from the polluted road. It was, undeniably, garlicky.
The plant is native to Europe and Asia, but in the USA it has caused consternation as an invasive species. Such is its colonial spread that the New York Times dubbed it ‘evil, invasive, delicious’, and encouraged good eco-citizens not just to eat it, but pull it up, roots and all.
I feel the purely culinary name is unfair to the elegance of this plant. It’s in its element right now, shooting up from shady verges into the lengthening, strengthening spring sunlight. As Matthew Arnold put it, ‘soon will the high Midsummer pomps come on’ – the verges stuffed with a fluffy riot of cow parsley. But for now garlic mustard steals the roadshow in the dappled verge-light, sometimes guarding an inner sea of woodland bluebells. It’s joyful verticality and empty space, an impossibly thin catwalk model turned plate-spinning waitress. The leaves are arranged around the stem to avoid shade from the one above, spiralling down and broadening, each something like a serrated heart, or the outline of an elephant’s head – and just as wrinkled.