Garlic mustard can drive out native plants

June 24, 1999|By Dennis Shaw

I love garlic, and I love mustard, but mix them together and I become a savage killer.

That has been the case since I was introduced earlier this month to a somewhat attractive woodland plant called "Alliaria petiolata," or, in English, "garlic mustard."

Actually, we'd met before, but I didn't know its name then, and I didn't know about one of its nasty habits.

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Garlic mustard is an exotic invasive plant - one that comes from another area and that tends to thrive and drive out native plants. It's doing just that, very efficiently, in many of this state's forested landscapes.


I learned the truth about garlic mustard on June 6, when I joined some members of Maryland Native Plant Society in fighting the second battle of Chapman's Forest State Park in Charles County.

Thanks to the efforts of some very committed folks, this area on the Potomac River south of Washington, D.C., was recently saved from development. That's the good news.

The bad news is that it's now threatened by several different exotic invasive plants, such as garlic mustard, which was picked as the enemy of the month for June.

It's not hard to get rid of - it's easy to pull out by the roots, it's not poisonous, and it has no thorns. But because the plant is a biennial, it has to be removed at just the right time of its life-cycle. The trick is to pull out the second-year growth before it has gone to seed. And the plants can't just be tossed aside; they have to be sealed in closed containers and sent to a landfill or some other place where their seeds can't spread and germinate.

Fighting this battle was satisfying. The weather was pleasant, my fellow warriors were a congenial group of people, and the Chapman's Forest setting was truly spectacular. I returned to Washington County feeling I'd done my good deed for the day and was relieved that there was no garlic mustard to worry about on my property.


As I went to my mailbox the next morning, there, waving at me and smiling smugly, was a small stand of garlic mustard along the side of the road, sporting a fine crop of bulging seed pods. I panicked, ran to get a plastic garbage bag, ripped the plants from the ground, shoved them inside it and tied it shut.

But I couldn't relax. I had a sinking feeling that there would be more, so I began a systematic search of the area. I was thankful to find that it had not spread into my woods, but I discovered several dozen stands of it along the half-mile dead-end road on which I live. I figured the seeds had been brought in on the tires of vehicles like my own and the garlic mustard invasion had begun.

I believe I caught it in time. I pulled up every second-year plant I could find, and I've marked my calendar for next May to attack the first-year plants, which it's useless to pull out at this stage.

I think I can breathe easy, at least for now. And that'll give me the chance to get to work on the exotic invasives that I wasn't lucky enough to have caught early, like multiflora rose, tree of heaven and Russian olive.

Let the battle be joined!

Dennis Shaw is a former Herald-Mail editor. Write him at P.O. Box 276, Clear Spring, Md. 21722, or call 301-842-3863.

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