The Mustard Family
Nature Bulletin No. 228-A April 30, 1966
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
THE MUSTARD FAMILY
Mustard has long been used as a condiment, and since Biblical times
for its medicinal values in plasters, footbaths, and as an emetic.
Commercial mustard is obtained from two kinds -- one having white
seed, of which the best grades are grown in England and the
Netherlands; the other having black seeds, mostly cultivated in
California and Kentucky. The tiny seeds, perhaps 250,000 per pound,
are ground to powder after their oil has been extracted in presses.
Table mustard, usually a blend of the black for aroma and the white
for pungency, is prepared by adding salt, spices and vinegar, although
gourmets prefer stale beer.
White mustard is also grown as a salad plant, as a forage plant for
sheep, and as green manure to be plowed under. Black mustard,
however, has become a noxious weed because when present in a field
of wheat, oats, rye or barley, its seeds lower the market value of the
grain. Both are members of an extremely large family of plants which
includes the mustards, the cresses and the cabbage group; all
characterized by a biting or peppery flavor; and all having flowers,
usually small but numerous, with four petals arranged in the form of a
Maltese cross. Hence the family name: Cruciferae or "cross-bearers " .
About 2000 species of crucifers are known in the temperate regions of
Europe, Asia and North America, which include as high a percentage
of weeds as any plant family except the grasses. In the Chicago region
there are about 60 wild crucifers, all annuals, of which over half came
from Europe, either accidentally or by escaping from cultivation.
Some, like water cress, are edible. Some, like toothwort, bitter cress
and yellow rocket, are attractive spring wildflowers. But most of them
are troublesome weeds in gardens and farmers' fields, although the
worst of them -- such as black mustard, pepper grass, sheperds' purse
and wild radish -- sometimes serve as soil binders on burned-over
areas and waste places. Among the mustard relatives which have been
cultivated as ornamentals for flower beds or borders are sweet alyssum,
candytuft, goldentuft, rockcress, moonwort, gilliflower and wallflower.
The cultivated vegetables of the mustard family furnish a large part of
the salad greens, leafy foods and root crops in our diet. Water cress,
radishes, horse radish, turnips and cabbages have been grown since
ancient times. A wild cabbage with many fleshy leaves but no head,
resembling kale, and still found along the coastal cliffs of Europe, was
domesticated and from it were developed cabbage, cauliflower,
Brussels sprouts, broccoli, kohlrabi, kale and collard, rape, turnip and
rutabaga. A cabbage head is a greatly enlarged terminal bud which
does not open. In kale and collard this bud opens. The small heads of
Brussels sprouts are side buds. Cauliflower and broccoli are modified
flowers. We eat the swollen stem of kohlrabi; the root of turnip and
rutabaga, as well as the tops for greens.
All thrive best on rich sandy loam well supplied with moisture. In
general, they are cool weather crops and some, like cabbage, kale,
collard and kohlrabi, can endure mild freezing. They add flavor,
variety and bulk to our diet and include some of our cheapest foods.
Turnips and cabbage are all-important in northern Europe. Although
not rich in proteins, starches or sugars, many are valuable sources of
Vitamin C and Vitamin A. Turnips and rape are also grown as forage
and as winter feed for livestock.
The giant kale or tree cabbage of the islands in the English Channel,
grows so tall and rank that the stems are used for walking sticks, and
the larger ones for cottage rafters.
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Update: June 2012