Taking Pride in the C&O Canal and a Couple of Recipes

This year the Blog officially volunteered for the Ninth Annual Canal Pride Days, a program sponsored by the C&O Canal Trust to work on projects, in coordination with the C&O Canal National Park, to improve or help the park. Projects such as pulling out invasive plants, planting gardens for the lockhouses, cleaning garbage and debris from the canal itself are completed by an army of helpful volunteers over several weeks each spring.

Founded in 2007, the C&O Canal Trust is the official non-profit partner of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park. Our mission is to work in partnership with the National Park Service to protect, restore, and promote the C&O Canal. The Trust engages communities and individuals to realize the Park’s historical, natural, and recreational potential.

The C&O Canal National Historical Park is the ninth most visited among this country’s national parks, welcoming over 5 million visitors a year — more visitors than signature parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite, or the Grand Canyon host each year! If you’ve ever spent a warm spring Saturday at Great Falls, it’s easy to believe. The C&O Canal Trust works in partnership with the C&O Canal National Historical Park to raise funds and resources to support maintenance and visitor programs in the Park.

The Canal carries importance to our region beyond its historical significance or that its a wonderful recreational resource: it’s ecologically important as well, helping protect the mighty Potomac River. From an ecological standpoint, the canal is of incalculable value to the health of the Potomac River and, by extension, the Chesapeake Bay. The best way to protect the water quality of a river or stream is to protect the land around it from development, and the park provides a natural buffer along more than half of the entire length of the Maryland side of the river.

We participated in Canal Pride Days, in part to give back to a park that has provided the Blog so much material. I’ve blogged about the C&O Canal more than any other local or national park. The 60 or so volunteers gathered just before 9 a.m., and were divided into groups, each assigned a specific task. Jobs varied from planting a garden for the lockhouse to filling in potholes in the parking lot. Our group’s job was to pull out garlic mustard, an invasive, non-native plant that has insinuated itself into the flora along the C&O Canal. All things considered, we got off easy!

I’m not immune to the irony of spending four hours weeding along the Canal. My yard and gardens were simultaneously being weeded and mulched by a landscaping firm. My husband, who was there with me, joked that “if we’d only spend four hours each in our own yard, we could have saved ourselves $700.” Oh well.

Garlic mustard is unwelcome in our parks because it has the potential to form dense stands that choke out native plants in the understory, by controlling light, water, and nutrient resources. Garlic mustard is a non-native species originating from Europe and parts of Asia. It is believed that garlic mustard was introduced into North America for medicinal purposes and food. The earliest known report of it growing in the United States dates back to 1868 on Long Island, NY. It has since spread throughout the eastern United States and Canada as far west as Washington, Utah, and British Columbia.

Had I realized its uses before weeding, I would have put some aside for tonight’s dinner. But I only learned of its potential while researching for this post. According to the Appalachian Forest Heritage Area web site, there are a variety of uses for Garlic Mustard. I do have to admit, I enjoyed the garlicky aroma while pulling this weed.

Here are some of the suggestions:
  • Young tender leaves can be torn up a bit and added to salads. 
  • Sautee garlic in olive oil or sesame oil or bacon grease; add chopped garlic mustard and other greens if available (garlic chives, spinach, arugula, lambsquarters, mustard greens, what-have-you); a little salt or soy sauce; add a bit of water or stock and cook gently. A dash of vinegar, balsamic or otherwise, may be in order. Taste and decide. This could be spread on toast, added to casseroles, eggs, quiche, stir-fries, etc. 
  • Garlic mustard pesto: crush garlic, slice up garlic mustard and also garlic chives if available, puree both in food processor with olive oil and walnuts (or pine nuts); add parmesan cheese. Start the water for pasta! 
  • Cream sauce: heat 1/4 cup oil and add 1/4 cup flour and cook; add hot milk. Separately cook finely chopped garlic mustard in a little sesame oil; and tamari or soy sauce. Add some of the sauce; puree in food processor and add back to the sauce. Add cheese as desired. Good on stuffed grape leaves for one. 
  • With leftover garlic mustard sauce, add a little yogurt, balsamic vinegar, and tamari and serve as a sauce for steamed asparagus. 
It is an invasive species, so please don’t go planting it in your garden. But if you notice a stand of it in the wild, along a road for example, consider harvesting it (root and all, to prevent it from continuing to propagate) and using it in cooking. Although we did our best to eliminate it from the old railroad bed along the Canal in Williamsport, there is still plenty to be found there.

Controlling garlic mustard and other invasive species is important to preserving the native plant vegetative cover, which helps to filter and slow down the precipitation that runs off neighboring roads, parking lots, fields, and rooftops on its way to the river. Because the riverfront forest has regenerated in the years since the park was established, it now provides tremendous habitat for birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles. The ecological health and wealth of the river corridor is only possible by virtue of the park.

In addition, as a model of a largely intact riparian (riverside) forest buffer, the canal provides an incomparable scenic amenity. Potomac Conservancy has long called the Potomac River the “wildest urban river in the world” thanks to the abundance of trees found up and down the river corridor. Both Scenic Maryland and Scenic America have identified the Potomac River corridor, and the C&O Canal NHP, as a scenic treasure requiring constant public vigilance to protect it from potential encroachments.

“The island in the parking lot looks amazing, our visitor center has a shiny new floor paint, the garden at Lockhouse 44 looks lovely, and I don’t think we left behind any Garlic Mustard within a mile of Cushwa Basin! Our park employees are very grateful for the wonderful cleaning job that was done in the Trolley Barn, Museum and Lockhouse 44, and our visitors can drive safer now that all of the potholes at Cushwa Basin are filled in!” said Josh Whitman, C&O Canal Trust volunteer coordinator, summing up all the work. “All of [the volunteers] did an amazing job!”

For more about the C&O Canal at Williamsport, click here. Click here to read an interview with Josh Whitman.

When: This year Canal Pride Days took place on:
Saturday, April 23, 2016: Great Falls 

Saturday, April 30, 2016: Williamsport
Saturday, May 7, 2016:  Hancock
Saturday, May 7, 2016: Lock 75

Website: www.canaltrust.org

For other parts of the C&O Canal, check out the below articles:
Brunswick to Dargan Bend
Canal Pride Days 
Edwards Ferry
Fort Frederick to Hancock
Great Falls
Locks 33 and 34
Lander Lockhouse
Maryland Heights (Harpers Ferry)
Monocacy & Catoctin Aqueducts
Paw Paw Tunnel to Lock 56
Swain’s Lock to Seneca Aqueduct
Kayaking at Swain’s Lock

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Updated June 2020