The Garlic Mustard Challenge


(This 1113th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on July 22, 2012.)


Grace Czech with a handful of mustard


Garlic mustard was first introduced from Europe to this country on Long Island in the 1860s and now it is found coast to coast. As it has spread, it has taken over woodland floors and displaced native wildflowers like bloodroot and trillium.


It has even been indicted for the extirpation of a native butterfly, the West Virginia white. It displaced the local toothworts on which that butterfly's larva fed and, according to the National Park Service, "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."


Why has this alien been so successful here when it is not nearly as widespread in the countries from which it was imported?  Although the answers to that question are similar to those for other alien weeds like purple loosestrife, beach grass and Japanese knotweed, there are differences as well.


Like them, garlic mustard has no exclusive insect enemies here. In Europe on the other hand over sixty insect species feed on it. Like those plants it is also prolific: it produces many seeds. A Boston University experiment showed that 20 plants produced 6000 in four years; that's more than a four-fold annual increase. Translated to area, an acre of these plants would expand to well over a square mile in five years.


But garlic mustard has additional advantages. It self-pollinates and its seeds retain their viability for many years. Moreover, its garlic taste is unattractive to herbivores and deer in particular.


Interestingly, that very taste has made this plant attractive to humans. Its leaves when young are said to make a tasty cress and it can be used in cooking as well. As Jack Sanders, whose "The Secrets of Wildflowers" has served as a primary source for this column, suggests tongue-in-cheek, "Help your environment, eat its enemy."


Unfortunately, that won't do it. There is too much garlic mustard in our environment. One alternative that is under investigation now, however, is biological: the introduction here of some of those European insects that feed on it.


Local environmentalists decided they couldn't wait for those insects and set out to do something about this problem. After a trial run in 2011, this year three western New York sites participated in a two month Garlic Mustard Challenge. The sites, together with their leaders were: Reinstein Woods Nature Preserve (Brittany Rowan and Meaghan Boice-Green), Beaver Meadow Audubon Sanctuary (Loren Smith, Mark Carra and Jackie Keller) and the Kenneglen Preserve (Nancy Smith). The Air and Waste Management Association provided financial support. This was a team contest to see which could harvest the most noxious weed. The overall winners at each site would earn an overnight stay at Beaver Meadow's rustic woodland camp and $200. Runners-up would receive $50.


Before I report the totals picked by the teams, think about this plant. It grows as a single two to four-foot spire with tiny four-petal flowers. Each plant weighs only a few ounces.


Over 300 volunteers participated in the Challenge. Teams were comprised of civic groups, scouts, schools and individual families. Many returned over and over to the three sites to gather more plants. Competition was fierce, the lead changing several times.


And here are what I consider the amazing overall totals: well over two tons were picked and carefully destroyed: 4471 pounds in all. The winning team at Reinstein (and overall winner) was the Master Gardener trainees from the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Niagara County. Accepting their award were Laura Wiltse of Hamburg and Sandy Pond of Tonawanda. Placing second overall was Olivia's Mustard at Beaver Meadow. The Kenneglen winner was the Aurora Women's Club. Runners-up were Team Trouble of Amherst (Reinstein), Western New York Earth Scouts (Beaver Meadow) and Team Laing (Kenneglen).


Even at these sites, however, the task is not complete. Garlic mustard is a biennial; it will take several years before it can be eradicated. And there are many other sites to be considered. As Sue Czech said, "Once my daughter Grace learned what it looked like, she started spotting it everywhere."


But some results are already heartening. Wildflowers like yellow wood-sorrel and spring beauty have returned to areas that had been taken over by garlic mustard.