Wild Things in May - Mustard Family

Welcome to Wild Things in May.  I have to confess that as of May 1, I had yet to decide which plant to feature this month.  I put the question up on my Facebook page, asking if Wild Things in May should be about morel mushrooms, mustards, or black locust blossoms.  I was quite convinced that people would favor morels, as they are such a sexy ingredient.  When an avalanche of people voted for mustard plants, I was surprised.  I was also pretty happy, because my own interest lies in exploring the possibilities of these common plants.

Worldwide, there are several thousand species of mustard, all of which are considered edible (Elpel, 2010), so you will have plenty from which to choose.  I encourage you to think outside of popular mustard plants like watercress and black mustard, and explore some lesser-known varieties.  While all species of mustard are edible, not every one may suit your tastes.  Some are indeed quite pungent.  I'd especially like to encourage people who live where garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) has invaded to consider sharing recipes.  Of course it wouldn't be possible to eat all of the garlic mustard that has overtaken the land, but it could be quite helpful if at least people had good ways to use it in meals as they remove the highly invasive plants.

Mustard plants are fairly easy to identify once they have bloomed.  Look for flower which have four petals that tend to present in an "x" pattern, and six stamen (four of which are tall, and two short).  I know many people associate yellow flowers with mustard plants, but the color of mustard flowers is variable.  Within a block of my house, I can find mustard different species which have yellow, white, and purple flowers.  If you find that the flowers are too small to count the stamen with your naked eye, you can also recognize the characteristic spiral staircase presentation of the flowers (or later, the seed pods) on the flower stalk.  Like so many "weeds," plants in the mustard family favor disturbed ground.

Need inspiration for cooking with your wild mustard?  Think about how you'd prepare their gardened cousins - broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and kale.  Alternately, try using the plants' seeds as a seasoning.

Are you new to Wild Things?  Here's the scoop.

In many countries, traditional foods are prepared for their medicinal effects. In most of these places, the foods prepared were wild foods that were cheap and easy to obtain. By default, they were local and seasonal. One of the problems with a lot of modern fad diets is that in order to actually follow the diet, one needs to fork out a whole lot of money. Most of us just can't afford to do that, especially not in this economy! Not only that, but it seems might suspicious that, in many cases, these products that are touted as panaceas have to come from half way around the globe -- noni from Tahiti, acai from Brazil, gogii from China. What are the odds that God (or the higher being of your choice) put all of the good stuff in Tahiti, and left us to fend for ourselves until the advent of globalization? Whether food or medicine, the majority of what we need can be found locally. It might not be trendy, but it will most probably be just as effective, if not more so. Wherever you are, you have with your reach an untapped resource - wild foods!
Welcome to the Wild Things Round Up*
As your host, I'd like to demonstrate that eating wild foods doesn't need to be a terrifying endeavor, and that our health and our diet needn't be dictated by financial status or geographic location.

A Few Notes About the Round Up
1. Wherever you are, you have access to Wild Things, even if this means clandestine trips to your neighbor's yard in the middle of the night**.

2. Foraging isn't only for hippies and luddites, though hippies and luddites are both very much welcome (Hi, Hippie!  Hi, Luddite!). It's easy to assume that everyone who eats this way lives out in the wild, and shuns the material world and/or technology. But it just isn't true! This isn't a club exclusive to country mice. I live smack in the middle of suburbia. I'm a very well adjusted modern woman who loves my life, and happen to love nature as well.

3.  This is not about trying to be a cave dweller. Though there are plenty of people in the world who successfully and gracefully live a life that is more similar to how people lived hundreds, or even thousands of years ago. I'm not one of those people, and I'll assume that for the most part, you are not either.  It's easy to romanticize, but that is a difficult, hard working life. It's also not necessary to remove yourself from the modern world in order to be connected to nature. When it comes down to it, isn't that what we all want a bit more of -- connection, to nature, to community, to other people, to a higher power? Nature is everywhere. Life is everywhere. It's not outside of your touch. It's not only available to people who sacrifice modern convenience. You do not need to give up your makeup or latte.

A Few Foraging Rules

1. DO NOT EAT ANYTHING THAT YOU CANNOT 100% IDENTIFY!!! I can't stress the importance of this point. People can die from this sort of stupidity. Let's not win any Darwin Awards here.

2.  Know the foraging laws in your area. Call the city, call the forest service, call the landowner.   Respect private property. Ask permission. Most people will gladly let you pull up some weeds for them. Most of them are delighted to get rid of some of the fruit that rots all over the pavement. Just ask.

3.  Don't take more than you need. Never take rare plants. Learn what's in your area -- only take things what are abundant. This is important! Always think of the future, not just in terms of what you want, but in terms of the ecology of the system from which you are harvesting. These ecosystems have been around for millenia, since long before people got there. Don't be the one to change that in one generation.

Tools You Will Need

1. Scissors and/or pocket knife

2. A local guidebook (don't be tempted to grab a national guide), with pictures

3. Bags for collecting food

How to Play

At the beginning of each month, I will introduce a new Wild Thing. I will give pictures, descriptions, best locations, and taste, and also list any possible toxicity issues. The plants that I feature will be those with few, if any, toxic lookalikes. And if there are any, I'll give you ample warning. None of the plants I select will have any potential lethal lookalikes.

Over the course of the month, both you and I will go and find the featured plant, play with it in the kitchen, and come up with creative ways to use it. But don't feel like you need to invent a recipe in order to participate. Feel free to tell about your experience using a known recipe. But please do credit the originator of the recipe.

If you have a blog, post your recipe on your blog, and then share it with Wild Things. Also, mine your archives, and link old recipes.

If you don't have a blog, you are still welcome to participate. Simply introduce your recipe and experience with a few sentences, and then share your recipe. A picture is always nice, too, although not necessary to play along.

Before the end of the month (sooner is better, because your host has a day job!), submit your recipe to wildthings.roundup@gmail.com . Please send your recipe directly to that email address. If you send it to my personal email, or post it on Facebook, I'm likely to forget it.
At the end of the month, I will provide a round up list of everyone's adventures. Sound like fun?  I think so.
*No association with Monsanto.

** Just kidding.  I don't advocate stealing. Really, there's no need -- a knock on the door and a "Hey, I noticed that you have an apple tree full of rotting apples. I was wondering, could I take a few of them, or pay you for some of them, or mow your lawn for some of them?" will suffice. Most people are horrified at the thought of taking money for apples, and will drop big bags of them off on your front step for months to come.


  1. Brenda McCartneyMay 4, 2013 at 10:13 PM

    Yay! I'm one of the people who voted for mustard, and we've got a terrible problem with garlic mustard here. It just swallows the land.

    1. I think a lot of people, unfortunately, will be able to make good use of the garlic mustard recipes.

  2. I'm game for trying some new kinds. I've eaten watercress my whole life, but I'd love to learn some new plants.

    1. Even if you don't find another mustard family plant that you enjoy eating, it is a good practice to learn to identify them. On my walk yesterday, I found two new ones that I'd never before worked to identify. It's fun to start recognizing broad characteristics.

  3. Replies
    1. The readers chose this one. And I agree, it is an excellent choice.

  4. Fascinating. I had no idea there were so many of them. I feel as if I have been missing out.

  5. Fabulous! Hard to find a more nutritious green.

    1. And many of them are listed as noxious weeds, so you can eat 'em up.

  6. I'm ready to give it a try. My local guide book points out ten varieties.

  7. I just made garlic mustard pesto last week. That's one delicious invasive!


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