July 9, 2012

Patterns of the mustard family

I continue to be enthralled with the brassica family because it contains so many of our vegetables.  Even if you don't eat vegetables you should be interested in brassicas because you probably a) season meals with black pepper or b) eat canola oil.  The brassica family doesn't only contain vegetables.  Lots of other plants make up Brassicaceae, some of which you've probably heard of or seen growing on the side of the road.

Ever seen drifts of yellow flowers on the side of the highway mid-spring?
They are probably yellow rocket (picture from gobotany.newenglandwild.org)

First though, how to tell if a plant is part of the brassica family?  Look at the flowers.  All flowers in the brassica family (also called the 'mustard' family just to add confusion) have 4 petals and six stamens.  The picture below shows how four of the stamens are tall and a two are short.

Picture from "Botany in a Day: the patterns method of plant identification" by Thomas J Elpel

What other plants are in the brassica family?  A list of all genuses found in New England has been complied by the New England Wildflower Society.  Domesticated varieties included horseradish, watercress, radish, turnip and (my favorites) arugula and mustard.  If you're a gardener you might have alyssum, sweet-alyssum, wallflower or baskets-of gold in your flower garden.

Sweet alyssum from gobotany.newenglandwild.org
Baskets of gold from gobotany.newenglandwild.org 
Lastly, Dyer's Woad (Isatis) is not found in New England, but is a noxious weed in western states.  Woad is used to make blue dye by extracting indigo from it's leaves.  Small amounts of the dye are produced in the UK and France for craft dyer's.

Photo by Steve Dewey, Utah State University, www.forestryimages.org

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