Hedge mustard (Sisymbrium officinale) is a plant in the Brassicacaea family: The brassica family contains fantastic plants for foragers. They are a completely edible family, providing a number of medicinally valuable foods for us, all year round. Many different species can be found in the garden or allotment, and just as likely on your way there! If you like the peppery flavour in the different 'rockets' (Eruca and Diplotaxis spp), then you may love this commonly found plant.
Hedge mustard can pack quite a pungent, peppery punch, dependent on where it's found, and the time of year. Apothecary physicians regularly employed this plant as an official medicine during the 17th and 18th centuries, as its name - 'officinale' points to.
Getting to know hedge mustard
This particular brassica is an annual, although as these 'rules' aren't set in stone, it will often be seen acting as a biennial, overwintering as a rosette of leaves, before flowering the following year. Timing of germination will dictate matters to a large extent.
In keeping with many herbaceous plants, hedge mustard's leaves will appear different at the rosette stage, compared to during flowering. Alongside the obvious elongation of the stem as a plant grows higher and produces flowering organs, the leaf shape and form can also drastically alter during the metamorphosis from juvenile to adult.
The basal leaves are deeply pinnately-lobed and typically grow to around 15-20cm long, ending with a large terminal lobe. The whole plant feels somewhat coarse and hairy to the touch. Crushing or nibbling a leaf will instantly release the characteristic brassica flavour! During flowering, the alternately-spaced stem leaves reduce in size, and increasingly become more refined in shape, eventually looking like an arrowhead towards the top of the stem. A mature hedge mustard plant can typically grow to a height of around 60-70cm.
Hedge mustard's flowers will be on display at their best during the summer months. The individual flowers are tiny and yellow, bearing the typical brassica pattern of four petals in a cross, with six stamens. However, you will need a hand lens to see the 3mm wide corolla properly. The branched inflorescence rapidly bears thin, bristly seed pods, about 2.5cm long, and without a beak. They are held tightly against the flowering stem, which can give the overall shape of a long, thin sickle.
The great thing about brassicas in general is that they can happily grow in many different places. One plant you will be hard-pressed not to find is hedge mustard. Formerly this species was a mainstay of the medicine cabinet, and this may help to explain its widespread distribution within town and country. This is a very common plant. Not surprisingly, hedge mustard will be found romping away in hedgerows, as well as in and around most grassy places in almost all villages, towns, and cities. Look on wasteland or farmland, at any accessible edge, as well as by roadsides and walls.
How to use hedge mustard and why it is good for you
Parts I use for food: Leaves, immature flowering tops.
Harvest: As and when required. April-July is optimum.
Medicinal actions: Rubefacient, anti-septic, anti-microbial, expectorant, diuretic, anti-cancer.
Uses: Because the leaves are often quite coarse and tough on older plants, thinly slice them before adding to salad bowls. But, with a little cooking, say quickly in a stir fry, use them whole. Hedge mustard adds a lovely, piquant, and peppery flavour, as well as vibrant green colours to dishes. But remember, the flavour will be quickly lost when cooking. The raw pre-flowering tops are succulent and crunchy, as well as sweet, peppery and juicy!
Much of this plant's medicinal attributes are due to the sulphurous volatile oils. These are similar to the ones imparted by other brassicas. We have known about the health-boosting actions of these plants for hundreds of years, yet recently, modern research has thrown more light upon this plant, and a number of similar acting family members.
Numerous respiratory conditions can be greatly alleviated with hedge mustard. More reasons to eat it, is to nip potential illnesses in the bud, especially in winter. Recent research also suggests promising anti-cancer properties are attributed to the glucosinolate compounds. These substances are present in numerous brassicas, including hedge mustard, and are proving a common family characteristic.
Apart from feeding and healing us, this plant is a known wildlife attractant. Bees, and especially caterpillars, love hedge mustard, so it will be prudent to leave it to self-seed around your garden/plot/neighbourhood to encourage pollinators and increase biodiversity.
To know more about the many hundreds of wild edible and medicinal plants growing all around us, simply visit the free web resources listed below, or better still, book a place any time on a nationwide forage walk or course available from www.ipsophyto.com, or visit www.wildplantguide.co.uk