Spring beauty (left) is one of the Adirondack wildflowers that struggles to compete with garlic mustard (right).

Michelle Zelkowitz steps carefully through jumbled rocks at the base of a ravine on a south-facing slope in the Adirondack Land Trust’s Westport preserve. She spots heart-shaped leaves with serrated edges and reaches down to uproot a few garlic mustard plants. Hands full, Zelkowitz navigates a stream crossing and returns to the hiking trail. 

Derek Rogers, the Adirondack Land Trust’s stewardship manager, meets her with a garbage bag already bulky with garlic mustard. Zelkowitz, Mary Burke, and Ned Fletcher—all volunteers— have joined Rogers and two colleagues at Westport preserve in early May. The preserve’s Champlain Valley location comes with less acidic soils, and southern exposure delivers hearty doses of spring sunshine to the forest floor before trees leaf out. This combination results in a display of wildflowers from late April to early May—unless garlic mustard takes over. 

Garlic mustard, endemic to Europe and transplanted to North America in the 1800s for herbal use, is a prolific spreader that now poses ecological threats to native plants across much of the United States and Canada. It appears in early spring, exhausting water and nutrient supplies that allow it to grow quickly and crowd out wildflowers like purple trillium, bloodroot, jack in the pulpit, and yellow trout lily.

“This is one of the best locations to see spring wildflowers in the Adirondacks and we want to keep it that way,” Rogers says. “Garlic mustard is hard to eradicate in this type of terrain, but it’s important we try our best to suppress it.” 

The best time to do this is after snowmelt and before garlic mustard produces seeds—a short window. Volunteers give the Adirondack Land Trust extra hands to get the job done. Burke and Kathy Kelley, another regular at these workdays, have both volunteered for this task for more than a decade. After two hours on the trail, Rogers ties off two 13-gallon garbage bags and suggests a trip to the summit. Above the ravine, the terrain levels out, and two vernal pools border the trail. A rustle of leaves draws attention to a porcupine lumbering through the hardwoods. 

The 0.7-mile trail climbs a total of 500 vertical feet to open rock slabs. The group takes in views that span Lake Champlain’s shoreline, rolling farm fields, and the jagged skyline of the Adirondack High Peaks. Then they backtrack to retrieve the bagged garlic mustard. On the descent, they pass spring beauty, its white petals streaked with purple, and Dutchman’s breeches, named for flowers that look like upside-down pantaloons. Each one another reason to spend a morning weeding the woods.