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The small, green, heart-shaped leaves don’t look very menacing right now.

As spring progresses, however, the garlic mustard plants at Reinstein Woods Nature Preserve in Cheektowaga and other locations in the region will grow into their status as an invasive species, with few natural predators, that crowd out many early spring wildflowers.

In response, local environmentalists introduced a good-natured annual competition in 2011 known as the “Garlic Mustard Challenge.”

It’s held from April through June at Reinstein Woods, which is operated by the state Department of Environmental Conservation; Buffalo Audubon Society’s Beaver Meadow Nature Center in North Java; and Kenneglenn Preserve in Wales, which is run by the Western New York Land Conservancy.

Teams compete for prizes by pulling out the most of the shallow-rooted plant, by weight. A separate one-day “Super Pull” will be held May 10 at the Lewiston Plateau Habitat Area.

Last year’s competition removed more than two tons of garlic mustard from those four sites.

Brought to this country from Europe, the presence of garlic mustard was documented on Long Island in 1868. “People planted it in gardens as a food source,” explained Cara Politi, a naturalist intern at Reinstein Woods who’s heading this year’s challenge.

Garlic mustard, whose leaves give off a distinct garlic scent when crushed, is still used in cooking. But its consumption pretty much is limited to humans.

“Things like deer … don’t want to eat them,” Politi said.

With a growing cycle of two years, the plants become stalks two or more feet tall during their second year. Tiny white flowers bloom in late summer. When the plants mature, they form tiny seed pods on the stalks. When the pods break open, the seeds spread.

When this year’s challenge kicked off earlier this month, it was difficult to detect the emerging plants among other vegetation on the still-frozen ground.

There’s another reason for the dearth of sightings – at least at Reinstein, where the plants have grown along the edge of paths.

“Two years ago, Reinstein Woods was the challenge champion,” said Meaghan Boice-Green, director of the preserve’s Environmental Education Center. “Our volunteers picked over 2,700 pounds just on our property.”

It takes five years of constantly pulling out the plants to “manage” the population, Green said. Various disposal methods were considered before it was decided to landfill them.

Dozens of people, comprising several teams, already have signed up for this year’s challenge at the three core locations. They include Scout troops, college groups and some families.

It’s not too late to sign up, Politi said. Those who wish to sign up should call 683-5959.

Someone from Germany who lives locally called about the challenge, Politi said. “He thought it was a cooking challenge,” she said. He decided to join it.

“I was really excited … to see all the kids that come out,” said Politi, who thinks their participation creates a stewardship of the environment .

“They don’t realize they’re learning something really important,” Politi said.

email: jhabuda@buffnews.com