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Improving lives by solving problems in agriculture and the environment

Biological control of garlic mustard

Crushed garlic mustard leaves and seeds smell like cultivated garlic and have been used as flavouring in cooking for centuries. Garlic mustard is a brassica from Eurasia that was accidentally taken to North America and became invasive in many of its forests. Together with partners, CABI is exploring the possibility of using specially selected and tested insects from the native range in order to safely control the plant’s spread and impact in the introduced range.

Project Overview

So, what's the problem

Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is not related to garlic but is a biennial cruciferous (brassica) plant. Native to Eurasia, it was accidentally introduced to North America in the 19th century. It is one of the few non-indigenous herbaceous species that can invade and dominate the understory of North American forests. It is considered one of the most serious invaders in the northeastern and midwestern USA and southeastern Canada. Several methods have been used to control its proliferation in natural areas; hand removal can be effective in small infestations, while fire, cutting and herbicide treatments have been used to reduce densities in large infestations. However, these treatments are costly, need to be repeated over several years and may face regulatory restrictions.

What is this project doing?

This project to investigate the potential for biological control of the weed was initiated in 1998 by Prof. Bernd Blossey (Cornell University, USA). A team from CABI’s centre in Switzerland has been surveying for natural enemies and assessing host specificity of selected insects.

Biological control is based on the concept that a plant may become invasive because of the absence of natural enemies that keep it in check in its area of origin. The project aims to identify and introduce host-specific natural enemies as biological control agents. A guiding principle is that an agent should not impact plants other than the target. Risk of non-target damage is assessed by testing whether a potential agent feeds or develops on other plant species. 

By reviewing the literature, we found records of 69 herbivorous insect species and seven fungi associated with garlic mustard in Europe. 30 species were collected in subsequent field surveys in Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Daghestan (Russia) in 1998–2000. Six insects were prioritized as potential biological control agents: the root-feeding flea beetle Phyllotreta ochripes, the two shoot-mining weevils Ceutorhynchus alliariae and C. roberti, the two seed-feeding weevils C. constrictus and C. theonae and the root-crown weevil C. scrobicollis.


We discarded three species: the flea beetle P. ochripes and the stem-mining weevil C. alliariae proved insufficiently specific – the latter attacked a federally endangered species – while the seed-feeding weevil C. theonae was difficult to find and rear. We suspended work on the stem-mining weevil C. roberti to concentrate on other species. 

Our US collaborators applied to the USDA-APHIS  Technical Advisory Group (TAG) for permission to release the root-crown weevil C. scrobicollis, after test results indicated that it was sufficiently specific. Data from Esther Gerber’s PhD study and modelling by Adam Davis (USDA-ARS, Illinois) showed the agent’s potentially large impact on garlic mustard demography. We are awaiting a decision on the re-submitted petition. 

The seed-feeding weevil C. constrictus seems the most specific agent. It developed to adult or mature larva on Brassica nigra (black mustard), B. juncea (brown mustard) and the target weed in the laboratory, but attacked only garlic mustard in field trials. Experiments demonstrated 79% garlic mustard seed destruction. We are completing testing in collaboration with the University of Minnesota. 

The team

Project Manager

Staff image of Ghislaine Cortat

Ghislaine Cortat  Research scientist in Weed Biological Control

Rue des Grillons 1 CH-2800 Delémont
T +41 (0)32 4214879

Project team

Staff image of Hariet L Hinz

Hariet L Hinz

Country Director and Head Weed Biological Control

Staff image of Ivo Toševski

Ivo Toševski

Research Scientist, Weed Biological Control