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White and Black Mustard

( Originally Published 1933 )


Cruciferae Annual

The black and white mustards are native to Europe and Asia and widely naturalized in the United States and Europe. It is difficult to tell the two apart, but when dead, dried, and spread out on herbarium sheets their differences stand out. They are pretty plants and, as with the dandelion, if they had not multiplied so obtrusively but instead had thrown out a challenge to the gardener's skill, they would be admired and valued for their pale yellow flowers. As it is, one hesitates to advise any one to grow them, for they are a weed.

Root. The root is a taproot, light colored and stiff.

Stem. The stems are light green, ridged, branching, and with rough hairs on them. Bailey says alba grows to four feet high and nigra to ten.

Leaf. The leaves are yellow-green, roughly hairy be-low, deeply and irregularly cut, shaped somewhat like a lyre, with margins irregularly lobed. The lower ones are eight inches long, growing smaller as they ascend the stem.

Flower. The, four-petaled pale yellow flowers are in clusters and along the stems. The blossoms of Brassica niyra in their twig-like racemes do not overtop the central unopened buds, while the flowers of Brassica alba do over-top them. They have a delicate fruity fragrance with a bit of heaviness underlying it, and the whole plant tastes pungent.

Seed. The principal difference is in the seed capsules and seeds. The seed capsule of Brassica nigra is one-half inch long, narrow, ribbed, and has a projecting end with a little nob at its tip. It generally contains about twenty small spherical red-brown seeds; whereas the seed capsule of Brassica alba is one and one-half inches long, curves up and out, has a hairy receptacle, and looks like the top of a fool's cap. The seeds are white, spherical, and their smallness has become proverbial. The seeds only smell when crushed and some say they have sulphur in them; they taste piquant and bitter.


Skinner, in the "Myths and Legends of Flowers," tells this parable about the mustard seed, from one of the Buddha stories : A baby had died and its distracted mother carrying the cold body in her arms implored the wise man to heal it, and he looked at the little dead face and said, "It can only be healed if you can get some mustard seed from a house where no child, husband, parent, or servant has died." So the mother hurried from house to house, but wherever she went she found that some one had died, and at last she understood, and realized that death at some time had visited every house.

Mustard has been a condiment since the earliest days, and in Europe during the Middle Ages was eaten with salted meats.


In France, the oil extracted from the seeds enters into the manufacture of a yellow soap. In Japan and Bengal it is used for illuminating.

Medicine. Both the white and the black mustard are in the United States Pharmacopoeia, and are used as an emetic when taken internally, and as a poultice in the guise of the famous mustard plaster when applied externally as a counter-irritant. White mustard is said to have the same qualities as black only to a lesser degree.

Food. The young leaves are good and peppery in a salad of lettuce or endive leaves, or as "greens."

Mustard seed is bruised and made into a spicy condiment to serve with meats, and it flavors many sauces.

Mustard can be purchased as a powder or made up into a sauce according to the English or the French way.


The plants flower quickly from seed and should be sown several times to continue the supply of young leaves. The seeds lie dormant on the ground for a long time and suddenly germinate. Around our place it is a rampant weed. If the young leaves are to be picked, it is best to grow it, and not depend on collecting from the fields. The plant grows very quickly and by cutting it back one keeps it from flowering.

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