A taste for the exotic

By Bria Fleming

 Here at Kankakee Sands, we love plants. We love white wild indigo, compass plant and butterfly weed, just to name a few. We spend most of our waking hours nurturing these plants and providing them with suitable habitat.

There are a handful of plants at Kankakee Sands, however, that are not so lovable. They are usurping prairie posers, sneaking into our lovely natural areas and establishing themselves like they own the place. These non-native, “invasive” plants cause all kinds of problems for native plants and land managers alike. Some invasive plants choke trees. Some invade forest floors and shade out the light-loving flowers and grasses under the trees. Some of them move into the prairie and crowd it out, threatening the plants and animals that depend on it to survive. Something must be done, and you can help!

Let’s look at one non-native, invasive plant that’s found its way into almost every county in Indiana—garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata). Garlic mustard is native to Morocco (Africa, not Indiana!), Europe and parts of Asia. As the name suggests, it is part of the mustard family. Garlic mustard is biennial, meaning it only lives two years. The first year it will appear as a little cluster of leaves on the ground (this is called its rosette stage). In its second spring, it will bolt, flower, and set seed.

Garlic mustard prefers partially shaded areas, and so most frequently occurs in degraded or disturbed woodlands, where it forms a mat and shades out native understory plants. By out-competing native plants, garlic mustard deprives insects, birds and mammals of their preferred food sources.  Unfortunately, deer won’t eat garlic mustard and will graze preferentially on other plants, making even more room for this invasive plant. The deer then move on to somewhere else, taking garlic mustard with them in the form of seeds stuck to their fur or hooves, or in their droppings. It’s easy to see why garlic mustard is everywhere.

Helping native species to survive is reason enough to remove garlic mustard from our natural areas, but there is another great reason – it’s delicious! Garlic mustard is edible, and makes a great addition to any salad. As a matter of fact, it was first introduced into North America as a culinary herb in the 1860s.

Next time you’re out for a hike in the woods, you can harvest this tasty weed and take it home for dinner! Obviously, make sure you are sure of its identity before you eat it. Two common look-alikes are motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca), another non-native and Common Blue Violet.

If you’re unsure of a plant’s identity, err on the safe side and don’t eat it!  It’s also a good idea to ask permission from landowners before you go out harvesting any plant.

For more great information on invasive plants and their uses, check out the following websites:

Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society 

Midwest Invasive Plant Network


Happy Harvesting!

Bria Fleming is a nursery and seed harvest assistant at the Kankakee Sands Restoration in Morocco, IN.

The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands of Indiana and Illinois is 10,000 acres of prairie and savanna habitat in Northwest Indiana and Northeast Illinois, open every day of the year for public enjoyment.  For more information click here or call the office at 219-285-2184.

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