The Mustard Family or Brassicaceae is one of the easiest groups of plants to identify in the wild and all members of this family are edible, though whilst none will poison you, there are those that taste better than others. There are however, one or two suspect agricultural modifications to be mindful of.
Easy ID tip: all you need to remember is “4 petals with 6 stamens – 4 tall and 2 short. If you find that combination in a flower, then you know it is a member of the Mustard family.
Formerly known as the Cruciferae, because it has four petals held open in the shape of a cross, this family includes many important vegetables and agricultural crops. There are over 3000 species throughout the world.
Various Wild mustards were introduced to Southern Africa in colonial times and have naturalised. I will only mention a few of the ones I have foraged in this article.
Brassica tournefortii ~ Wild Turnip-Rape, Sahara Mustard, Asian mustard, African mustard
Edible: Young Leaves and young shoots – cooked. An edible oil is obtained from the seed. The huge seed stalk and head look a bit like a tumble weed.
Cardamine hirsute ~ Hairy Bittercress
Edible: Leaves and flowers – raw or cooked. A hot cress-like flavour, they are mainly used as a garnish or flavouring in salads etc. but are also sometimes used as a potherb. The plant germinates most freely in the autumn and so leaves are usually available all winter. Looks a bit like watercress.
Raphanus raphanistrum ~ Wild Radish
Young leaves are eaten either raw or cooked. A somewhat hot taste, they are finely cut and added to salads or used as a potherb. It is best to use just the young leaves in spring, older leaves soon become bitter. Seed are very pungent and can be ground into a powder or made into a paste for an excellent mustard substitute. The sprouted seeds have a somewhat hot spicy flavour and are a tasty addition to salads. Flowers can be added to salads and are lovely raw.
Alternatively they can be lightly cooked – steamed for no more than 5 minutes – for a broccoli substitute. Young seedpods can also be eaten raw. Crisp and juicy, they must be eaten when young because they quickly become tough and fibrous. An edible oil is obtained from the seed.
Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum ~ Watercress
Whilst the plant is very wholesome and nutritious, some care should be taken if harvesting it from the wild. Any plants growing in water that drains from fields where animals, particularly sheep, graze should not be used raw. This is due to the risk of it being infested with the liver fluke parasite. Cooking the leaves, however, will destroy any parasites and render the plant perfectly safe to eat.
Edible: Leaves – raw or cooked.
Water cress is mainly used as a garnish or as an addition to salads; the flavour is strong with a characteristic hotness. It has a reputation as a spring tonic, and this is its main season of use, though it can be harvested for most of the year and can give 10 pickings annually.
The leaves are exceptionally rich in vitamins and minerals, especially iron. The seed can be sprouted and eaten in salads. A hot mustardy flavour. The seed is ground into a powder and used as a mustard.
The pungency of mustard develops when cold water is added to the ground-up seed – an enzyme (myrosin) acts on a glycoside (sinigrin) to produce a sulphur compound. The reaction takes 10 – 15 minutes. Mixing with hot water or vinegar, or adding salt, inhibits the enzyme and produces a mild but bitter mustard.
Watercress is very rich in vitamins and minerals, and has long been valued as a food and medicinal plant. Considered a cleansing herb, its high content of vitamin C makes it a remedy that is particularly valuable for chronic illnesses. The leaves are antiscorbutic, depurative, diuretic, expectorant, purgative, hypoglycaemic, odontalgic, stimulant and stomachic.
The plant has been used as a specific in the treatment of TB. The freshly pressed juice has been used internally and externally in the treatment of chest and kidney complaints, chronic irritations and inflammations of the skin etc. Applied externally, it has a long-standing reputation as an effective hair tonic, helping to promote the growth of thick hair.
A poultice of the leaves is said to be an effective treatment for healing glandular tumours or lymphatic swellings. Some caution is advised, excessive use of the plant can lead to stomach upsets. The leaves can be harvested almost throughout the year and are used fresh.
Sweet Alyssum (Lobularia maritima)
This is a common garden plant that self-seeds annually
The young leaves, stems and flowers are sometimes used as a flavouring in salads and other dishes where pungency is required
Medicinal: The plant is commonly used in Spain as an antiscorbutic and diuretic. It is also highly esteemed there as an astringent in the treatment of gonorrhoea.
By Tracy Armbruster