Updated: Sep 6, 2020
It was the second week of March when the news of the pandemic hitting us started sinking in. Without much thought, my partner and I gathered our essentials together, packed the car, and headed out of the city to his property in upstate New York. We come here every chance we get, usually for a couple of days and then head back. However, the feeling wasn’t one of adventure when we rushed out of the city on this occasion.
That first week was a blur. The fear and uncertainty that came from ingesting loads of articles, videos, and podcasts about the virus, one contradicting the other, triggered an anxiety attack that did quite the number on me. I battled over the next few days breathing laboriously at times when the anxiety began to creep up on me. I began to search for alternative information and found many good things, among them, a docuseries titled Real Immunity. Some of the themes of the docuseries are the properties of the vital force, natural healing, and levels of consciousness and how they relate to the information we are suggestible to. It was good to bring my focus to these ideas as my response to the pandemic. It helped me substantially, not only to come to grips with the situation, but to open a door that allowed me to see what was unfolding right in front of me.
I have known for quite a while that by recognizing and acknowledging the many worlds existing outside of us, we can find our place as a species on this planet. So I’ve been trying to spend as much time as I can learning about nature and those many worlds outside of us. In the past couple of years among other things, I’ve gone to a couple of earth skills gatherings in N.C. Having lived in cities exclusively, they were life-changing. There, I met inspiring folks who are truly committed to reducing the harm they cause and implementing ways to live as sustainably as possible. I've also been joining up with people in the city with whom I’ve gone foraging and hiking.
About a month ago, Cloud, who runs Earth Arts Center in Brooklyn, whom I had previously connected with and follow on social media, put up a post in which she was talking about the soil in her field and then pointed to a plant she said was garlic mustard. She picked one of its leaves and took a bite. As she munched on it she said it is really “spicy,” and that some of the plants that come out in the spring when plants are starting to wake up have this fiery quality about them, which I thought was super interesting. Later that day, I went out to walk a bit with the dog and just out there I saw a plant that was similar to what I had seen in her video. I took a picture of it with a plant identifier app that I had downloaded, and there it was, the garlic mustard. We’re basically surrounded by it. I had not heard about garlic mustard before so I was excited to learn more about it, and I began doing research.
I learned that garlic mustard was brought here in the 1800s by the Europeans. They brought it here for consumption and medicinal use. Now labelled an invasive weed, garlic mustard carries a very bad reputation. This has triggered the response of trying to eradicate it rather than understand it. Sadly, this is not an unusual response to being widely misunderstood and feared. The most common way people exterminate large populations of this plant is with the use of pesticides that are very harmful and negatively impact native vegetation as well, which defeats the purpose of getting rid of it in the first place. A recent study suggests that garlic mustard is “self-regulating.”(1) As populations of the plant increase in density and competition decreases, their production of sinigrin, a chemical they produce to inhibit growth of other plants and fungi, is genetically reduced. This is good news, but this process happens over decades, so it isn’t very apparent. This research also tells us that hand-pulling large amounts, which is also recommended to get rid of garlic mustard, might be problematic. Not only is it a labor-intensive task, that is sometimes done pointlessly as people, not being aware of the cycle or even anatomy of this plant, don't realize that when they pull the garlic mustard out after it has gone to seed, they risk spreading it further, but it might also be detrimental to their self-regulating process as it happens through genetical changes. Fortunately, the conversation is slowly changing and it draws from novel research that takes on a holistic approach and seeks heavily to reframe our concept of weeds.
Some have found there's more about what goes on with this plant, than what we'd previously thought, and they found it by not only looking at it but looking at the dynamics of the ecosystems which it has become part. What this has shown is that perhaps the most efficient way to handle invasive species is by creating the best conditions for natives to proliferate. (2) Since the arrival of the European settlers, there has been a reduction in the cultivation of native species. This reduction left room for invasion, because cultivation had previously been essential for the shaping of balanced ecosystems. (3) Also, invasion in many cases has been beneficial for the ecosystem at large. It turns out that lots of weeds have something in common, they grow where human civilizations exist, assisting in the cleansing and restoration of the earth. Weeds are also free to collect and they contain higher nutrient value than domesticated plants. (4) Garlic mustard is an “excellent source of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, trace minerals, chlorophyll, and enzymes.” When consumed “the plant stimulates circulation of the blood which is optimal for the regeneration of tissues and effective elimination of waste.” (5)
Finally, ready with my harvesting gear and newly gained knowledge, I ventured out to gather some garlic mustard. The rosettes of green leaves close to the ground are first-year plants that develop into mature flowering plants the following spring. Knowing that juvenile survival to adulthood plays a big role in the self-regulating process of the plant, because the reduction of sinigrin occurs through genetic changes, I only pulled about ten rosettes. I hear these can be added to salads, or cut up, dried, and mixed with salt to use as a seasoning, but because they are very bitter, I separated the leaves and stems from the root and added them to a marinara for pasta. In their first year, biennials “have no flowers or seeds and their healing virtue is concentrated in their roots.” (5) I mixed the roots with white vinegar like you do a horseradish, which many say is very similar in flavor.
The second-year plants are much taller (up to 3ft.) and turn from a rosette to a single stalk with alternate leaves that change in shape from top to bottom. The higher leaves are heart-shaped and the ones closer to the ground have the shape of scallops. The second year of biennials is when the healing virtue moves to the flowers, and then to the seeds.(6) So it’s good to catch the stalks before they flower because that’s when their healing virtue is concentrated in the stem and leaves. Otherwise, you would be eating a much more tough and bitter garlic mustard. My intuition said to cut rather than pull them from the root, that way the plant can grow out again, and not be so much interrupted in its generational process. I cut it right where the hairs begin to avoid the more fibrous parts. I collected about 40 of them from a few different locations throughout on this property, which has a population of roughly 5,000 garlic mustard plants. I took out the alternate leaves from the stalk leaving just the ones at the very top. As I was doing this, I realized how incredibly similar the stalks are to asparagus, they’re just a bit more skinny. Once I was done, I held them all in my hands and showed them to my partner. Surprised at the yield, he came forward to help with our side dish for the night. We set half aside for another day, and in a large pot we boiled water and then threw the rest in for just three minutes. Once we took them out, all we did was throw on some butter, salt, and pepper. Their taste reminded me of broccoli rabe, they’re truly a treat. But having learned about their situation made me appreciate them so much.
These plants we call weeds carry an important lesson about restoration, resilience, togetherness, and balance, that we should not overlook. This is mother nature trying to get our attention, following us everywhere we go, calling out to us to reach back to it and take a part in it, to fulfill our roles in this existence. It is so clear that there's a piece to this puzzle of balance that has been missing and it is US! We must stop living isolated within our walls from everything else that breathes and lives, thinking we are different because we have ideas. It is a lie that is no longer sustainable, because there are plants and animals all around that are desperate for us to realize what they've been communicating all along. Now that I hear their call, I feel their desperation, and I am able to see that these times of turmoil and chaos is nature itself forcing us to shift our perspectives. Many times these shifts require hitting ‘rock-bottom,’ because we literally have to be standing somewhere else to be able to see from another point of view. These moments can be scary because of the uncertainty they bring, but they are also necessary as they offer a chance to take a deep look at ourselves and our dynamics from a distance. When we study what has failed, we can find answers which we can use to create something NEW. In order to preserve our ecosystem, perhaps our position of trying to control our environment without really understanding it, must shift into us becoming a part of it and fall in line with the natural laws and rhythms. We must realize that the way we view and treat other species can be a political act that can create new and expansive opportunities for health and justice for all.
1. Jeffrey A. Evans, Richard A. Lankau, Adam S. Davis, S. Raghu, and Douglas A. Landis, "Soil-mediated eco-evolutionary feedbacks in the invasive plant Alliaria Petiolata," [Electronic version] Functional Ecology journal, 2016, 1059
2. Chelsea Green Publishing, “Garlic Mustard: A Gold Mine of Food and Medicine,” 2020, https://www.chelseagreen.com/2020/garlic-mustard/
3. Tao Orion, “Beyond the War on Invasive Species: a permaculture approach to ecosystem restoration,” Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015, p.162
4. Katrina Blair, "The Wild Wisdom of Weeds," Chelsea Green Publishing, 2014, p. 356
4. “Garlic Mustard: A Gold Mine of Food and Medicine,” ibid.
5. Ellen Evert Hopman, Secret Medicines from your Garden, Healing Arts Press, 2016, p.9
6. Secret Medicines from your Garden, ibid.