Partying with pests: A community approach to fighting invasive species

Garlic mustard, gruyere, ramps, and morel mushroom puff pastry with veal demi-glace. Hanger steak with roasted jalapeño, cilantro and garlic mustard pesto. Wild mushroom and garlic mustard marsala. All expertly paired with local wines and beers. One evening in May, 85 people paid $50 a plate to experience these gourmet delights at the Wrought Iron Grill in Owosso. Sprays of the delicate white flower with heart-shaped leaves that was the focal point of the menu also served as the centerpiece of each elegantly set table.

What fancy ingredient has inspired this popular event for seven years running? It's a weed. In fact, it's an invasive weed. That's why, when Ken Algozin, executive director of Owosso's DeVries Nature Conservancy, discovered garlic mustard was overtaking the forest floor of the nature preserve in 2006, he knew it would take something special to combat it.

That sentiment isn't exclusive to Owosso. According to the Michigan University Extension, garlic mustard is "rapidly becoming one of Michigan’s worst woodland weeds" and can be found throughout the state. Combating it takes hordes of volunteers and lots of time. And creative, whimsical solutions like the Garlic Mustard Pestival (that's not a typo; think "pest") with its one-of-a-kind dinner menu help energize the movement.

A Naughty, Tasty Plant

If garlic mustard is so tasty, what's wrong with it growing in Michigan? While the plant was brought to the U.S. by European settlers as a cooking green, when it arrived, it had no natural enemies, so it began to spread and push out native vegetation.

"It's particularly harmful in forest environments because it will completely take over the forest floor and prevent trees from germinating and other native plants," Algozin says.

Crowding out native plants such as wildflowers means garlic mustard detracts from pollinators, as well as human visitors to DeVries, who count on a beautiful, diverse array of wildlife to enjoy when hiking the preserve's more than four miles of trails and exploring its 136 acres.

"If we had not pulled it as aggressively as we had early on," says Algozin, "the woods here, instead of having diverse wildflowers in the spring and new growth in the summer, would be all garlic mustard."

And that's true of nature areas throughout the state. While organized garlic mustard pulls happen everywhere from West Michigan to Ann Arbor--there's even a statewide pull contest--to Algozin's knowledge, the Owosso Garlic Mustard Pestival is the only one of its kind in Michigan. But that doesn't have to remain the case.

"I would love to see other people do it," he says. "The nice thing about nature centers is, nobody cares if you steal anything, because it's all for the common good. It's a very open and non-proprietary environment."

Community-Based Effort

It's the community outreach aspect of the Pestival that makes it such a powerful weapon against the invasive garlic mustard. It's easy to inspire people to attend an innovative and delicious gourmet dinner. Getting them to trudge through the woods to pull weeds, however, is a different story. The Pestival dinner raises awareness about garlic mustard, motivates volunteers to join the pulls, as well as educates property owners about controlling their own outbreaks.

The first year, when garlic mustard was at its worst at DeVries Nature Center, Algozin estimates 60 to 70 volunteers pulled close to one ton of the invasive plant. But even now that garlic mustard is more under control and far less needs to be pulled--five to ten bags does the trick--Algozin says maintaining community awareness about forest invasives is as important as the annual maintenance of the garlic mustard population.

"One of the reasons we'll always have to manage the property here is the neighbors to our north have a lot of wooded property and aren't particularly aggressive about removing it there," he says. "And that's the problem throughout the state. You can pull and pull and pull in the sanctuary areas, but where it's not being managed, it's just being imported again."

Pestival Partnerships

How can other communities get in on the Pestival fun? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the community-based effort began with building community partnerships. The annual DeVries event is a collaboration with another volunteer-based organization, the Friends of the Shiawassee River, several local sponsors, as well as Owosso restaurateur John Lowman.

"John and his chefs have been really excited about the event, and the chefs have always been really creative and experiment with incorporating garlic mustard into the menu," says Algozin. "It's kind of the social event of the spring."

Of course, in the big picture, successful garlic pull events are even more important than the celebration dinner. In order to ensure volunteers are pulling the invasive plant correctly, Algozin recommends partnering with an organization like The Stewardship Network.

How successful has the Garlic Mustard Pestival been for DeVries Nature Conservancy? After its seventh year, Algozin says his biggest future challenge will be pulling enough garlic mustard to serve at the dinner--as well as fitting the growing number of Pestival-goers into the event space. Pair that with the fact that the event doubles as a fundraiser for the organization that sponsors now eagerly support each year, and these are problems anyone facing an outbreak of invasive species would love to have.

This story is a part of a statewide Invasive Species Community Impact Series. Support for this series is provided by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and edited by Natalie Burg.
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