July 24, 2016

Intermittent clouds

Cutting out the mustard

John Gladden | The Gazette

MEDINA TWP. — There is an alien invader in our midst.

It’s a serious threat, it has a few dirty tricks up its sleeve … and it may be growing in your backyard right now.

If garlic mustard sounds like a flavorful herb that might go well on the chicken breast you were planning to make for dinner tonight, you are partly right. It is an herb garden escapee that offers a pleasant garlic smell when crushed.

Volunteers pull garlic mustard at the Medina Sanctuary. (John Gladden | The Gazette)

However, it is a prolific — and sneaky — invasive species that can choke out native Ohio plants, such as wildflowers.

That’s why a group of seven volunteers spent a Saturday removing it from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s Medina Sanctuary — a 34-acre natural area bordering the Rocky River. It’s home to a heron rookery and an array of trillium, trout lily, rue anemone, bloodroot, blue phlox, may apple and other Ohio woodland plants.

“It has such a rich wildflower diversity, we really want to get it out of here before it out-competes the native plants,” said Garrett Ormiston, who works in the museum’s conservation outreach program, and led the garlic mustard pull.

The plant, a European native, began its march across the continent in the 1800s, he said. It’s been traced back to a New York restaurant, which it apparently bolted without paying the check. Now, garlic mustard can be found throughout Ohio.

“It’s actually very tasty,” said Ormiston.

To people, yes. To wildlife, not so much. Therein lies garlic mustard’s evil genius. Its presence in the landscape points hungry animals away from garlic mustard and toward other plants in nature’s salad bar — which, as often as not, are native wildflowers. And, there’s sheer force in numbers. Each garlic mustard plant can produce the seeds for thousands more. Given time, it can take over entire areas, crowding out other plants.

Right now is the best time to identify and remove garlic mustard. Because it’s in bloom and one of the taller plants in the landscape in midspring, it’s easy to spot. A biennial, it produces clusters of small white flowers — each with four petals — on top of stems up to two or three feet tall. It has heart-shaped leaves with toothy edges and prefers shady locations.

Just to be safe, volunteers stuffed the garlic mustard they pulled into garbage bags to be packed out of the sanctuary. Even though the plant’s seeds are not fully mature, there’s still a chance they could germinate if tossed on the ground, said Trish MacKeigan, the museum’s herbarium coordinator. The seeds — which are transported by wind, water, animals and people — can remain viable in the soil for years. So, removing the plant from any single landscape is a long-term project.

In some spots within the Medina Sanctuary — combed by garlic mustard pullers in years past — there was only a lonely invader here or there. However, in other areas, it grew in thick patches, where volunteers pulled handful after handful, roots and all, from the rich forest soil.

“It’s a nasty plant, but it pulls easily,” said Terri Martincic of Berea, bent over with a garbage bag in one hand, a clump of garlic mustard in the other.

“That’s its one virtue,” Ormiston replied.

The museum oversees 37 preserves in the region, totaling 4,500 acres. The areas, which are representative of northern Ohio’s biodiversity, include hardwood forests, fossil dune ridges, wetlands and a Lake Erie island.

The Medina Sanctuary was one of the first — bequeathed in 1969 by Edith Reiff Morgan in memory of her parents, Frank and Ida Reiff. It was given to the museum as a nature preserve on the stipulation it would be used for educational purposes.

Most of the museum’s natural areas — including the Medina Sanctuary — are not open to the public without prior written permission. Volunteering is a way to get an up-close look and to help preserve the preserves.

Ormiston said help with garlic pulls and other efforts is always needed. New seasons bring new sets of invaders that only can be defeated by hand-to-plant combat. To learn more, contact Ormiston at (800) 317-9155, ext. 3352, or gormisto@cmnh.org; or visit the museum’s Web site, www.cmnh.org.

“There’s stewardship work going on in these preserves year-round,” he said.

Garlic mustard is so prevalent, removing it can seem like an uphill battle, but the positive changes at the Medina Sanctuary prove the pulls make a difference.

“It’s everywhere. We’re just trying to keep it out of the high-priority areas,” Ormiston said. “But on a micro-level, if you get it soon enough, you can keep it out.”

Contact John Gladden at gladden@ohio.net.