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A Pollination Moment
from Pollinator Paradise Farmer's Market E-mail reminders

Ole King Cole

Cole crops reach their peak during cool spring and fall weather.  We're talking here about Cruciferae, the mustard family.  Did you realize that broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale, and kohlrabi are not just relatives, they are considered different varieties of the same species: Brassica oleracea.  The edible part of the plant differs from leaves to stem (kohlrabi) to flower buds, and the colors and shapes differ, but they all contain those pungent mustard oils.  Close relatives in the genus Brassica include Chinese cabbage (B. pekinensis), pak choi (B. chinensis), mustard greens (B. juncea), mustard spinach (B. perviridis), some kales (B. napus) rutabaga (B. napobrassica) and turnip (B. rapa).  A little more distant but still in the same mustard family are radish (Raphanus sativus), watercress (Nasturtium officinale), garden cress or peppergrass (Lepidium sativum), arugula or roquette (Eruca vesicaria), and horseradish (Armoracia rusticana).  

Mustard oils include a number of different compounds, and each species, indeed each individual plant, has different amounts of the different compounds, accounting for differences in flavor and potency.  Many of these compounds have been shown to be good anti-oxidants, and are helpful in preventing cancer.  There's a good reason to eat your broccoli and arugula!

Mustard seeds are harvested to make the condiment of that name.  My copy of Joy of Cooking has a great recipe for making your own mustard paste, which they claim has the added benefit of clearing your sinuses.

Rape seed oil and canola oil also come from seeds of the mustard plant.  What pollinates mustard flowers so they produce seeds for oil and paste for condiment?  Why bees, of course.

Scientists speculate that the Cruciferae plants evolved mustard oils to prevent generalist insects from feeding on them.  Like the poisonous alkaloids in plants of the nightshade family, the mustard oils are a deterrent to many potential herbivores.  Unfortunately, a number of specialist insects have evolved ways to detoxify mustard oils, and actually use these oils as cues for finding the plant.  Cabbage White butterflies, for example, have been cruising my broccoli patch in large numbers this year.  Earlier in the season I treated the plant with lepidoptera-specific bacillus thuringensis to control them, but by now it has worn off.  I find a number of green caterpillars when I wash the broccoli heads.  Hopefully they are washed away before the broccoli gets to your kitchen, but a few may sneak through. 

        Not all mustards are crops.  There are some lovely plants for the garden such as dame's rocket, candytuft, sweet alyssum and stocks.  There are also many notable weeds such as shepherd's purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) and blue mustard (Chorispora tenella), which give fields in the Treasure Valley a blue tinge in the spring.

        In addition to mustard oils, plants in the Cruciferae share a similar flower structure that gives the family its name: 4 petals and 4 sepals that form a cross around 6 stamens, two short and 4 long.  Have you ever let radishes or broccoli develop flowers because you hadn't gotten around to picking them?  Next time have a close look at the flowers and admire their symbolism.

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October 12, 2002
Copyright 2002, Karen Strickler. All rights reserved.