Garlic cress is a biennial herb that grows easily from seed. In fact, it is considered a noxious, invasive weed in North America.
In its first year, it produces a base of leaves that are triangular or heart-shaped, with toothy edges. Over that winter, it will stay green and hold its leaves even when the winter is harsh. In its second and final year, it grows up to 1 meter (3 feet) tall, and produces small white flowers with four petals each in a cross formation. The leaves begin to drop as soon as the flowers appear. After the flowers, the plant produces seeds are in slender, shiny four-sided black pods that turn pale brown as they age. By mid-summer, the plant has begun to die back.
When the leaves are young, they can be eaten raw, finely chopped, in salads, or used as a potherb, or as a flavouring herb in sauces. They are not worth eating in hot, dry weather or in the summer, as they turn bitter.
They have a very mild garlic flavour that some describe as mixed with mustard; others say mixed with cress. Crushing the leaves gives off a garlic smell that adheres to your hands. Depending on the locale and weather conditions, the garlic and mustard taste can be quite hot. The taste, though, is always milder in winter.
When gathering garlic cress in the wild, there is a risk of confusing it with toothworts, sweet Cicely, and early saxifrage.
Garlic cress is native to Europe. It was probably brought over to North America for food or folk medicinal purposes. The first written record of it in North America is in Long Island, New York, in 1868.