This week’s plant for #WildEdibleWednesday is the Brassica or Sinapis family, specifically Wild Mustard. Brassicas are the family in the genus Cruciferae which includes such well-known and either loved or reviled species as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, kale, turnips, kohlrabi, and collards. We’re not focusing on just one specific mustard species today because there are simply so many. “Wild Mustard” can be a name for one of several pure strains or crosses that all look pretty similar. But like violets last week, the good news is that specific positive identification doesn’t really matter. They’re all edible, and have no toxic mimics. Wild mustard really isn’t even a wild plant – it’s just cultivated mustard that has naturalized as a weed. The two plants are almost identical genetically.
Mustard is an annual herbaceous plant that depending on species, can grow from 18” to 6’ tall. They have dark green, thick, ragged-looking, ruffled leaves that are covered top and bottom with slightly prickly fine hairs. The most positive way to identify them is by their flowers. If you’ve ever grown broccoli or cabbage and let it go to seed, mustard flowers will be instantly recognizable. They’re bright yellow, and form in clusters at the end of long flower stalks. They have four petals with no veins. The four-petaled flowers are actually what give the genus its name – they’re shaped like a Greek or Maltese cross, hence the name Cruciferae. In Georgia, they’re blooming in early spring. Mustards are native to the open lands of Eurasia, but have naturalized in almost every place on earth. They are one of the few plants on the planet that thrive in both Greenland and Antarctica. They are considered a pasture weed, as they’re kind of a nuisance if you have cows. The high sulfur levels irritate a cow’s stomachs, and the strong flavor can get passed on into milk, making it unusable. Mustard is found in open, sunny areas. It’s not picky about water or soil conditions, but it does need a lot of sunlight. Pastures are a prime habitat, as are roadsides, waste areas such as vacant lots, and overgrown home sites.
Mustard is a prime wild edible. You may have already eaten it as cooked mustard greens – as I said earlier, wild mustard really isn’t that wild at all. Cultivated varieties may have better flavor or texture or may lend themselves better to row culture, but the wild variety is still pretty close. Like its close relative kale, mustard greens are highly nutritious. They are high in vitamins C, A, and K, as well as calcium, manganese, folate, and potassium. Most interestingly, just one cup of mustard greens has 3 grams of protein, making it one of the highest-protein leafy greens out there. As a wilderness survival food, it definitely deserves your attention. Mustard tends to have a bitter, spicy flavor that some people love in a salad. Early season mustard tends to be more tender and milder in flavor, so if you’re eating it raw, try to get it before the weather turns hot. Mustard can be eaten raw just fine, but the hairy leaves and often strong flavor make cooking a better option. Mustard greens are what is referred to as a potherb. Cook them low and slow with a ham hock or a piece of fatback, just like collards or turnips. Mustard greens and fresh cornbread is a meal that’s fed generations of poor Southerners. It’s great on its own, but it fits right in with a table full of fried chicken or country ham, mac & cheese, fried okra, and fresh homegrown tomatoes. I better stop, because I’m making myself hungry.
The second main edible use of wild mustard is, of course, for making mustard. The plants seed very prolifically in the summer, with one plant producing up to 3,500 tiny round seeds. Harvest the seed heads, and use either a mortar & pestle, food processor, or a rock to grind them up. Mix with water, vinegar, and salt until the consistency is how you like it and you’ve got fresh homemade mustard to put on whatever you like. If you’re feeling ambitious and have an oil press, you can also press the seeds to get true mustard oil. It takes a lot of time and a lot of seeds, but mustard oil is useful for cooking as well as fueling lamps.
Mustard flowers also share the pungent, spicy flavor of the greens and seeds. They can be picked and infused into olive oil to make mustard-flavored oil, or floated in vinegar to make mustard vinegar.
While mustard is mainly an edible, it does have several medicinal uses as well. Before Vick’s Vaporub, people used mustard plasters to clear up their sinuses and treat chest colds. Crush or grind some mustard seeds, mix with a small of amount of water, and apply the paste to a piece of cotton cloth like a thin towel or a piece of flannel. The strong aroma will help quickly clear up sinuses and improve breathing. Mustard paste can also be used topically to reduce swelling and inflammation on sore joints and muscles. Finally, a tea made from mustard can help relieve headaches.
If you keep cattle, mustard may seem like a curse, as it’s virtually impossible to eradicate once it gets established. But for the rest of us, it’s a blessing. It’s been a reliable “hard times” food for people all over the world for thousands of years, due to its tenacity, prolific growing tendencies, and high nutritional value. During the oppressive, impoverished years of Reconstruction in the South, mustard greens made up a large part of the diet of most poor farmers in rural areas, like my ancestors in the west end of Pickens County. It was a common sight in abandoned fields and pastures, and was the only ingredient in many a meal. They had cornbread if they were lucky. In the South today, most of us prefer our turnips or collards to mustard greens, but we still tip our hats to it for getting us by during hard times.
Know any other uses of wild mustard? Did we miss anything? Tell us in the comments!