Everything looks peaceful at the Butler Wildflower Garden. But if you look closely -- just off the wood-chipped path, right behind unsuspecting patches of trout lilies and wild ginger -- you'll see that the invading hoardes of garlic mustard have begun their campaign to take over the garden.
Curator of the garden, Susan Wilkins, says in the spring, garlic mustard gets a jump on many other plants.
"It really pushes out native plants. And then a process that is very unhealthy begins, in which biodiversity starts to decline," she said.
Wilkins is out looking for a good spot to forage for garlic mustard. The plants with creased, heart-shaped leaves are still pretty small, about six inches off the ground. But in a few months, the garlic mustard will be more than twice as tall.
"This is the plant," Wilkins said as she points one out. "This is a biennial. During its first year it doesn't produce flowers or seeds."
For the next few weeks, garlic mustard will be tender enough to eat. So the wildflower garden is participating in a promotion called "Garlic Mustard Goes Gourmet."
During the program, the garden is hosting supervised harvests -- note that freelance picking is forbidden.
Wilkins says the public harvests are a nice way to introduce people to the problem of invasive species and give them a tasty alternative to pesticides.
"We try to get them to come into these natural areas and to tell them how all these horrible things are about to take over. So it's good to have something there to offer back," Wilkins said.
In other words, if you can't beat it, you can eat it.
Some of the garlic mustard picked from the wildflower garden is now on the menus of two area restaurants.
Lucia's in Minneapolis and Heartland in St. Paul are partners in the garlic mustard goes gourmet promotion.
Heartland has already gone through its initial supply of the invasive edible. So, we volunteered to bring a bagful to executive chef Lenny Russo.
"I'm thinking we should have some lunch," Russo said after he's picked through the harvest.
On the menu is wild boar stew with carmelized onions, topped off with a handful of garlic mustard, cooked until slightly wilted. The stew is already prepared, so Russo washed the greens and we gave them a taste.
"It's very strong -- here," he said, and handed some to taste. "It tastes like garlic up front, and then on the back, it's bitter."
Russo recommends using garlic mustard sparingly, especially if it's in a salad or a pesto, so as not to overpower everything else.
At Heartland, garlic mustard has been used with fish and braised with other sweeter, greens.
My take? "Mmm, that's excellent."
And the chef? "Not bad."
The stew is sweet and smoky. The bitterness of the garlic mustard counterbalances the sweetness of the carmelized onions.
As our bowls of stew magically evaporate, Russo explains why he supports the garlic mustard picking promotion.
He likes it because not only does it bring a locally grown seasonal food into his restaurant, but it offers an environmentally friendly alternative to a weed problem.
"This stuff is growing everywhere. You can go out in your backyard, most people can, and pull this stuff up," Russo said, "and they should."
This not the first time Russo has put an invasive species on the menu at Heartland.
Last year, he teamed up with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in an attempt to eradicate an infestation of Chinese crayfish. He served more than 100 pounds of the critters.
"Somebody mentioned it to me, 'Why don't you start eating invasive catfish and zebra mussels too?' I said, 'Well I don't know, if they taste good, we'll eat them too.'"
Russo says this approach to fighting invasive species is part of a larger change in attitudes.
However, frustrated gardeners beware. Buckthorn, another common invasive plant, won't work for this project because it's a noxious weed, and the berries will make you sick.