The original Latin name for the Mustard Family was Cruciferae. The name describes the four petals of the flowers that are arranged in the form of a cross. The flowers also have four sepals, usually four nectar glands, and six stamens, two of which are shorter than the other four. All members produce siliques or silicles that are unique to the family (see Fig. 8.17). All 2,500 species of the family produce a pungent, watery juice, and nearly all are herbs distributed primarily throughout the temperate and cooler regions of the Northern Hemisphere.
Among the widely cultivated edible plants of the Mustard Family are cabbage, Chinese cabbage, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, broccoli, radish, kohlrabi, turnip, horseradish, watercress, and rutabaga. The widely used condiment
mustard is a mixture of the ground, dried seeds of two species of Brassica. Some edible members are also widespread weeds. The leaves of shepherd's purse (Fig. 24.7), for example, can be cooked and eaten, and the seeds can be used for bread meal. Other wild edible members include several cresses, peppergrass, sea rocket, toothwort, and wild mustard. Wild mustards are often weeds in row crops. Their leaves are sometimes sold as vegetable greens in markets.
The seeds of wild mustard, shepherd's purse, and several other members of this family produce a sticky mucilage when wet. Biologists at the University of California at Riverside discovered a potential new use for these seeds. They fed pelleted alfalfa rabbit food to mosquito larvae in water tanks they were using for experiments on mosquito control. They noticed the larvae, which had to come to the surface at frequent intervals for air, often stuck to the pellets and suffocated. Curious, the workers examined the pellets under a microscope and found that they contained mustard seeds. Evidently, the field where the alfalfa had been harvested had also contained mustard plants. The scientists then tried heating the mustard seeds to kill them and found this did not affect production of mucilage by wet seeds. It was calculated that 0.45 kilogram (1 pound) of such seeds could kill about 25,000 mosquito larvae. A few mosquito abatement districts have used the seeds effectively, but experiments are needed to determine if there is a practical way to harvest many more seeds and control mosquitoes on a much larger scale by such non-polluting means.
Native Americans mixed the tiny seeds of several members of this family with other seeds and grains for bread meal and gruel. To prevent or reduce sunburn, Zuni Indians applied a water mixture of ground western wallflower plants to the skin. Watercress is widely known as a salad plant and has had many medicinal uses ascribed to it. During the 1st century A.D., for example, Pliny listed more than 40 medicinal uses. Native Americans of the west coast of the United States treated liver ailments with a diet consisting exclusively of large quantities of watercress for breakfast, abstinence from any further food until noon, and then resumption of an alcohol-free but otherwise normal diet for the remainder of the day. This was repeated until the disease, if curable, disappeared. Dyer's woad, a European plant that has become naturalized and established in parts of North America, is the source of a blue dye that was used for body markings by the ancient Anglo-Saxons. The seeds of other members of the family produce camelina and canola oils. Camelina oil has been used in soaps and was once used as an illuminant for lamps. Canola oil (obtained from rape seed) is a source of low LDL fats and is widely used in food preparation.
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