Mustard Seed Weed

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Wild mustard might be one of the most common, indestructible, and criminally overlooked edible weeds on Earth. The Weed Science Program’s goal at MSU is to provide science-based research and extension information on integrated weed management in field crops. Weed control, management, ecology, and minutia

Mustard Seed Weed

Weedy wild mustards are ubiquitous along the California coastline in spring, as seen here in Big Sur.

Getting to Know Edible Wild Mustards

Brassica rapa, Brassica nigra, others

also known as field mustard, black mustard, rape mustard

Brassicaceae (Brassica / Mustard) family

B. rapa is one of a few species we might call “the quintessential mustards” along with the closely related B. nigra (black mustard) and B. oleracea (whose cultivars include broccoli, cabbage, kale, collard greens, Brussels sprouts, and just about every other cruciferous vegetable). B. juncea (brown mustard) is also an important commercial crop, as is B. napus (rapeseed, canola).

B. rapa has been widely cultivated by humans as well, but its wild varieties are especially prolific in North America. There are so many unique offshoots of B. rapa that its taxonomy as a species is further subdivided into wild varieties and domesticated cultivars.

As foragers we are interested in the wild varieties, which are denoted as B. rapa var. rapa; B. rapa var. amplexicaulis; B. rapa var. dichotoma; B. rapa var. silvestris; and B. rapa var. trilocularis. It’s not necessary to know which of these varieties you have, because they all share the same common traits with some slight variations.

Also of interest is the aforementioned black mustard, a once-domesticated species gone feral that shares B. rapa’s cosmopolitan distribution. Foragers on the west coast may encounter the perennial Hirschfeldia incana (shortpod or hoary mustard), the only species in its genus, which was formerly classified as a Brassica species.

What is Wild Mustard?

Highly opportunistic herbaceous weed that thrives where human activity disturbs the soil. All parts are edible.

Characteristic 4-petaled yellow flowers of wild mustard.

Key Characteristics:

· broccoli-like flower buds

· yellow brassica flowers (4 petals, 6 stamens) in springtime

· leaves clasping around the stem (when flower stalk is present)

· silique seed pod with seeds attached to thin, translucent inner membrane (known as the replum)

Where to Find Wild Mustard:

Anywhere humans go, wild mustard will follow right behind. At this point in time it has come to occupy every nook and cranny of North America, particularly in farm fields and along roadsides and walking trails.

B. rapa and many other foreign mustards are native to Europe, but are now so ubiquitous on this continent that they should pretty much all be considered “naturalized” here.

When to Look for Wild Mustard:

If you’ve ever been out for a drive in the country in April or May and thought, “I wonder what all those little yellow flowers are?” chances are good that they were wild mustard.

All of the plant’s parts can be harvested anytime they are found, but will be most conspicuous through the springtime when in bloom.

Though brassicas are typically biennials, wild mustard is a quick-growing opportunist that can function as an annual depending on when it germinates.

The typical biennial life cycle sees the plant germinating in fall, overwintering (and often dying back to its roots in colder climates), and then quickly bolting to produce flowers and seeds as soon as springtime arrives.

Those seeds, in turn, may wait until fall to germinate if conditions are too hot and/or dry, but with ample moisture they may instead germinate right away in the spring and summer. In this case, they will carry out their life cycles as annuals, bolting when the heat of late summer becomes too much for them to handle.

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Why Forage for Wild Mustard?

B. rapa is not just a quintessential mustard – it’s also the quintessential plant in some respects, at least as far as biological research is concerned. Mustard is one of a handful of species across the kingdoms of life that is designated as a “model organism,” which is to say that when any plant will suffice for a scientific experiment, researchers usually default to this one. Others include the house mouse (Mus musculus, otherwise known as lab rats) and the common fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster).

Because wild mustards are so closely related to our cultivated cole crops, you will quickly notice the shared traits that are reminiscent of these vegetables: leaves like collard greens or kale, flower buds like broccoli, flower stalks and seed pods like all of the above. (By the way: the ‘cole’ in cole crops derives from the Latin caulis, translated as ‘stem,’ alluding to the mustard family’s characteristic flower stalk – now you know!)

Indeed, we couldn’t ask for a better model of the Brassicaceae family as a whole than B. rapa – it is one of the best examples of “taxonomy in action.”

Beyond the Brassica genus, there are dozens of edible wild mustards in North America that display many of the same general traits, so if you know this plant well, you will quickly begin to notice its cousins as well. We will discuss one such relative, Alliaria petiolata (garlic mustard), later in this program.

Let’s not forget that wild mustard is also delicious and nutritious, on top of all of its cultural significance! And I can almost guarantee that there is a lifetime supply of it not far from wherever you are.

These axillary shoots demonstrate some key mustard features, such as the broccoli-like buds and the leaves that clasp the stem.

How to Gather Wild Mustard:

All parts of the wild mustard plant can be eaten at any point in its development. You can treat the various parts just like you would their domesticated counterparts.

As with most wild spring greens, may people will prefer the flavor of the leaves before the flower stalk emerges. Young leaves make a wonderful addition to a salad, whereas older leaves may be sautéed or added to stir-fries or smoothies.

The top 4-6 inches of any flowering shoot, whether before or after blooming, can be cooked like broccoli raab or asparagus. The flowers themselves make a great garnish to any prepared dish.

Immature seed pods are nice to nibble on whenever you encounter them. When fully mature, the seeds may be gathered and ground up to make – you guessed it! – mustard.

How to Ethically and Sustainably Work With Wild Mustard:

In terms of human ecology, we can group wild mustards in with the chickweeds and the dandelions – they’ve already followed us humans everywhere we can go, and they certainly don’t need our help to grow.

Wild mustards are often considered an invasive blight in places like Southern California, where they crowd out native wildflowers with their seemingly endless monocrop. The hope of actually doing anything about this unfortunate situation is probably long gone at this point – and the conventional “restoration” paradigm would involve intensive chemical herbicide regimens – so we may as well make the most of it and eat as much as we can.

Wild mustard showing off its characteristic seed pods, which are still immature here.

Why pay a premium for organic brassicas like kale and broccoli at the farmer’s market when all the free wild mustard you could ever ask for is likely waiting right around the corner?

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If you are interested in cultivating your own patch of wild mustard, it couldn’t be simpler: just gather seeds after the pods mature, then broadcast them in a bare patch of soil. You’ll have your own self-sowing crop in no time – just be careful to only plant it in places where you won’t mind it taking over.

Lookalikes:

The only other plants that look anything like B. rapa or B. nigra are also in the mustard family and are also edible.

The aforementioned A. petiolata (garlic mustard) is one of the most common non-Brassica wild mustards, but it stands out for its unique garlic-like aroma. See our post on garlic mustard for details.

Wild radish (Raphanus raphinastrum), which is also in the Brassicaceae family, has very similar morphology, but its flowers may be shades of white, pink or magenta. Its flavor is a lot sharper and more peppery than wild mustard.

Did you find this article helpful?

Foraging North America is a 12-week online course designed to arm you with a functional working knowledge of botany and taxonomy that you can take with you out onto the land to fast-track the ID process and boost your confidence when gathering wild foods for the first (or five-hundredth!) time.

My mission in presenting this information to you is to promote ecological literacy alongside an ethos of “conservation through use” — the (surprisingly) radical notion that humans can, in fact, have a positive impact on the environments that we move through.

Nothing makes me happier than introducing people to the edible wild plant allies who surround us at all times. Food is everywhere — you just need to know how to look!

Weeds

Winter/summer annual. Emerges in late summer, early fall or spring. In Michigan, several populations of wild mustard act as a summer annual. Flowering peaks in June and July, but can continue until the first frost.

Emergence:
Emerges from soil depths of 1-inch or less.

Seed:

Production Range: Approximately 1,200 seeds per plant.

Dispersal Mechanisms: Seed pod dehiscence (splitting open).

Longevity: Low persistence – 50% of the seed bank is reduced in less than one year, and it takes seven years to reduce the seed bank 99%.

Dormancy: Initially dormant. Dormancy is broken by a combination of changes in temperature, light, and nitrate levels.

Competitiveness:

One of the more competitive weeds with small grains, soybean, and corn. Winter cereal yields were reduced 13 to 69%, when the biomass was comprised of 1 to 60% wild mustard. Soybean yields were reduced 46% with 4 plants per yard of row and corn yields were reduced 1.5- to 2-fold and 5- to 6-fold at low and high wild mustard densities, respectively.

Preferred Soil/Field Conditions:

Grows on a wide range of soils.

Management:

Biological

Predation/grazing: Ground beetles (carabids) eat wild mustard seed lying on the soil surface.

Decay: No information.

Mechanical

Tillage: Seedlings are readily killed by tillage.

Rotary Hoeing: Hoe before weeds exceed 1/4-inch in height, once established wild mustard is difficult to control.

Flaming: Effective on small wild mustard.

Cultural

Crop rotation: Corn-soybean rotations will deplete wild mustard populations more rapidly than continuous wheat.

Planting date: Later planting will reduce wild mustard populations.

Chemical

Application timing and effectiveness: Several herbicides are effective for controlling wild mustard. Control is greater when herbicides are applied to smaller wild mustard plants. Please refer to E-434, “MSU Weed Control Guide for Field Crops,” for herbicide recommendations.

Additional Information

Wild mustard can serve as an alternate host of nematodes and many insect pests.

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Mustard Seed Weed

As we start the winter season today, many locals and tourist to our area look forward to the end of winter when the Napa Valley comes alive with the beauty of yellow mustard flower that has been celebrated for many years in the ‘Napa Valley Mustard Festival.’ No one can argue the aesthetic beauty of a hillside vineyard covered in the yellow flower of mustard. Working as the Farm Advisor who oversees vineyard floor management in the Napa Valley, I am at times troubled by the sight. Is there an invasive weed that has ‘taken over’ the vineyards? If it is a covercrop, is it good cover crop? And the question I get most often from grower and city folk alike, ‘What kind of mustard is that?’ Consulting the ‘Weeds of California and Other Western States’ it appears that the Napa Valley has at least five “mustards”; Short-pod mustard (Hirschfeldia incana L.) that can become a short-lived perennial, and four species that are all at some point referred to as ‘Wild Mustard’: Wild mustard (Sinapis arvensis L.); Rapeseed mustard (Brassica napus L.) Black mustard (Brassica nigra L. Koch); and Birdsrape mustard (Brassica rapa L.). How do you tell the difference? To really tell the difference you need to look closely at the flowers and the orientation of the mature fruit in relation to the stem.

Are these mustards weeds or covercrop? The answer, as with most weeds, depends on your perspective. Mustard as a group may be one of the best examples of both. In many parts of the country mustards are a serious weed problem in vegetable and cereal production. However, they also have several properties that make them a good covercrop: large tap root that can break up hard soils, usually germinate and grow quickly, providing erosion control and weed suppression, large biomass that can contribute to the organic matter of the soil, and contain chemical constituents that can provide limited nematode and weed suppression. These ‘mustards’ usually germinate in the fall when the rains start, then flower, and set seed in late winter, in time to mow for frost protection.

So, if wild mustards can act as a covercrop, why, according to many long-time Napa Valley locals, do we have much less mustard than before? There are some properties that make mustard a less than ideal covercrop. Deeply buried seeds of some species can survive for up to 50 years. Early flowering reduces growth and weed competition. Wild mustards break down very quickly and add little organic matter and almost no nitrogen to the soil. A wide variety of more suitable plants are available as covercrops, such as domesticated mustards(White mustard or Daikon radish) that have shown promise of more positive properties without as many of the negative. Other covercrops are better suited to the specific needs of the vineyard. Cereal grains, such as oats or barley are often used where vines are too vigorous or in vineyards that tend to hold moisture in the spring. Many growers utilize a ‘no-till’ system comprised of low-growing annual or perennial grasses, and where organic matter and nitrogen are needed a cereal/legume mix of barley or oats with winter pea or fava (bell) bean is very popular.

The amount of mustard in the valley may have diminished, but there will continue to be an abundance of this attractive yellow flower to enjoy for years to come…

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