Garlic Mustard Assemblages: A Brief Recipe for Pesto

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Editor’s Note: This is the third post of Ghost Light: Folkloric NonHumanity on the Environmental Stage, an eight-part series with an open call for further contributions edited by Caroline Abbott. The series aims to illuminate the relationships between non-human, or other-than-human beings, folklore, and the environmental humanities and to encourage intersectional conversation.

1. Collect

Walk through the forest. Walk in your yard. Walk beside a road and find, aside from the litter, the smell of garlic. Find the young plants with their dark green, scallop-edged leaves. Find the second-year growth, with their tall stems and toothy leaves.1 Find the garlic mustard and pull it out, root and all. Tear off some leaves for yourself. Bag the rest. Burn them or bin them, but don’t leave anything behind.

Garlic mustard, or Alliaria petiolata, reminds me of Southern-Ontario springtime, where I lived on lands maintained under the boundaries of a conservation area. It reminds me of summers spent working at a local day camp, inviting groups of kids to smell its strong odour and rip it from the ground, learning, for perhaps the first time, that we humans are necessary (and de facto) participants in our environments. But, if only treated as a reminder, I participate in a long history in which plants are disavowed as not fully living, or are otherwise assigned an identity between animate and inanimate. In doing so, I risk ignoring the stories garlic mustard might tell about itself, even if communicated in ways drastically different from human convention. Plants are “caught up, in diverse ways, in specific relations of knowledge, power, colonialism, commodification, technology accumulation and desire,” which requires us to take them seriously rather than with merely passive notice.2 Yet recognizing how human life is enmeshed (and often determined by) plant life is difficult within anthropocentric frames.

Scholarship on non-human agency is shifting to include both animal and vegetal life, a move that requires attending to the unknowable and innumerable ways that plants assert their aliveness. For example, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing (2015) charts the entanglements of human and non-human lives through matsutake mushrooms, a fungal species which participates in world-building and calls into question the very notion of species itself.3 Catriona Sandilands (2016) offers another point of departure from such limiting emphasis on animality, proposing a conceptualization of plant sensation, or more specifically and relevant to this discussion: smell.4 

Plants both produce and respond to scents as a mode of communication. The fragrant scent is not incidental—garlic mustard is saying something. Beyond communication, smell is also a matter of matter. As Tsing puts it, smell is the “presence of another, to which we are already responding. Response always takes us somewhere new; we are not quite ourselves anymore” (2015).5 As scholars draw attention to human-fungal or human-vegetal collaborations, they make clear what Eurocentric (or anthropocentric) logics erase: the necessary collaboration between human and non-human communities.

Fig. 1. A detail of page 170 of Addison Brown and Nathaniel Britton’s 1913 second volume of “Illustrated flora of the northern states and Canada,” hosted by the Biodiversity Heritage Library and MBLWHOI. Both bodies classify this work as public domain.

2. Blanch

Remove leaves from stems. Submerge the leaves in boiling water. After a brief interval, remove and transfer to an ice bath.

Garlic mustard has inhabited North America for nearly two hundred years. Indigenous to parts of Europe, Asia, and north-western Africa, there are two dominant stories of the plant’s arrival: first, as an accident, in which seeds were unintentionally transported across the Atlantic via soil or settlers’ boot soles.6 The second story is one of intention, in which European settlers purposefully brought it as an edible herb and medical remedy.7 The latter narrative speaks to the intimacies between invasive species and colonization, or how introduced species appear as deliberate tools for imperial expansion much like introduced pathogens.8 In both stories, garlic mustard is made part of the violent and enduring project of settler-colonialism.

Lacking the competition of its original ecosystem, garlic mustard spread unevenly through parts of Quebec, Ontario, the Maritime provinces, then towards the southern part of the continent, seeding into North Carolina, Kentucky, and beyond— all while displacing indigenous species (including species at risk) and avoiding predation.9 Like other invasive species, the plant is often termed a “weed,” “blight,” “alien,” “pest,” or other moralized designations which, like the plant’s very presence, are caught up in human history and ideology. The stories we tell about garlic mustard are rooted in hierarchies of value, apparent in the designation of “invader,” thereby imposing “human-centric framings of importance” upon the plant.10 As Dan Bousfield observes, “the ‘foreignness’ of flora and fauna is largely indecipherable from migration, human prejudice and notions of desirability and undesirability” (2020).11 Garlic mustard is both discursively and historically entangled in settlement, including settler-colonial systems of value.

Fig. 2. A photograph of Garlic Mustard in bloom, captured in Devon, England. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, “Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata).” Photo by Sannse, Tapeley Park, Instow, North Devon, 14 May 2004.

3. Assemble

Add leaves to food processor. Add walnuts or pine nuts, olive oil, lemon juice, and salt. If desired, add parmesan cheese or, as a non-diary substitute, nutritional yeast. Blend until the consistency of a chunky paste.12

Adapted from the recipe by Alexis Nikole Nelson (On Instagram as Alexis Nikole, or @ blackforager)

Now that garlic mustard has been brought to the table, I do not argue for weeding out these terms. Instead, garlic mustard must be understood as both an ancillary to settler-colonialism or an ongoing invader, and a being that exceeds these human attachments. After all, recent studies show that while garlic mustard reduces growth of some species, it increases growth for others (Rodgers et al 2022).13 This duality calls for an approach that Tsing terms “assemblage,” or the “patchy landscapes” and “multiple temporalities” that bring humans and non-humans together in “collaborative survival.”14 Garlic mustard is, like other assemblages, strengthened by its many attachments as much as it is characterized by the possibility of these meanings falling apart or becoming new.15

With its colonial past and continued presence as “pest,” garlic mustard’s future is (rightfully) uncertain. The species is likely a permanent fixture of the landscape; however, it can be managed through creative conservation efforts, from “pull parties” where groups of volunteers assemble to uproot plants, to public campaigns aimed at “mak[ing] people want to eat it.”16 As leaves are transformed from pest to pesto, and sustainability practices become literal forms of sustenance, garlic mustard adds new, nourishing layers to its existing stories.

Fig. 3. A crop of garlic mustard growing, in bloom, before a marsh.
Via Wikipedia: Photographer: O. Pichard. Alliaria petiolata — Marsh of Belloy-sur-Somme, Somme department, Hauts-de-France, FR, EU (translated from original French by the editor). “Alliaria petiolata – Alliaire officinalle – Marais de Belloy sur Somme (Somme).” 26 April, 2007. CC BY-SA 3.0


1. For more information on identifying garlic mustard, refer to this guide provided by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry on Garlic Mustard. Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, Government of Ontario, “Garlic Mustard,” Section 1.
2. Catriona Sandilands, ‘Floral Sensations: Plant Biopolitics’, in The Oxford Handbook of Environmental Political Theory (Oxford, 2016), 226–237.
3. Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton UP, 2015). 
4. Sandilands, ‘Floral Sensations: Plant Biopolitics’, 2016.
5. Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World, 2015.
6. Caren White, “The Best Way to Get Rid of Garlic Mustard, an Invasive Weed,” DenGarden, January 2, 2022. Accessed October 13, 2022.
7. “Garlic Mustard,” Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, 2022: Section 1.
8. Menozzi quoted in Simon C. Estok, “Afterword: reckoning with irreversibilities in biotic and political ecologies.” ARIEL 44, no. 4, 2013.
9. For a discussion of how garlic mustard avoids predation and a survey of existing scientific literature see Vikki L. Rodgers et al. “Understanding the Ecological Contexts for Invasive lliaria petiolate.” BioScience 72, no. 6, 2022. 
10. Dan Bousfield. “Settler Colonialism in Vegetal Worlds: Exploring Progress and Resilience at the Margins of the Anthropocene.” Settler Colonial Studies 10, no. 1, Jan. 2020, pp. 15–33.
11. Ibid.
12. Nelson, Alexis Nikole, @blackforager. “I made a foraging TikTok video […]” Instagram video, 12 April, 2020. Accessed October 13, 2022.
13. Vikki L Rodgers, Sara E Scanga, Mary Beth Kolozsvary, Danielle E Garneau, Jason S Kilgore, Laurel J Anderson, Kristine N Hopfensperger, Anna G Aguilera, Rebecca A Urban, Kevyn J Juneau, “Where Is Garlic Mustard? Understanding the Ecological Context for Invasions of Alliaria petiolata,” BioScience, Volume 72, Issue 6, June 2022, Pages 521–537.
14. Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World, 2015.
15. Ibid., 43.
16. Howells, Laura, “Garlic mustard is invading Ontario forests — but it’s really tasty,” Toronto Star, July 31, 2017. Accessed October 13, 2022.

Feature Image: A composite image generated from public domain / creative commons images by Caroline Abbott. Two images were used in the production of this image. The first, the image depicted in Fig. 2, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, which permits re-use and adaptation with details of changes ( “Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata).” Photo by Sannse, Tapeley Park, Instow, North Devon, 14 May 2004): it has been rotated 270 degrees with applied transparency and colour balancing. The second image uses Fig.1, a detail of page 170 of Addison Brown and Nathaniel Britton’s 1913 second volume of “Illustrated flora of the northern states and Canada,” and applies transparency and colour modifications over Fig.2. The Brown/Britton text is hosted by the Biodiversity Heritage Library and MBLWHOI, both bodies consider this text to be within the public domain. Kindly contact the image editor, Caroline Abbott, for full list of final adjustments to colour and clarity of the resulting composite image and with any questions.

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Adrianna Michell

Adrianna Michell (she/her) is a PhD student in the department of English at the University of Toronto. She previously completed her BA in English & Cultural studies (2020) and MA in Cultural Studies and Critical Theory (2021) at McMaster University. Her research considers temporality in contemporary fiction via the intersecting fields of disability studies and ecocriticism. Her past research in the digital humanities and critical health humanities informs her current interests in literary and cultural representations of non-normative bodyminds and environments. Outside of her academic work, Adrianna contributes to ongoing work in anit-oppression and sexual violence prevention. Adrianna is a settler in Tkaranto, land belonging to the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca, and the Mississaugas of the Credit peoples.

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