And a most fascinating and large family at that!
Mustards are many things. They are vibrantly coloured, they are ripple leaves, or feathered. They are strap leaves. They are pungency defined or a subtle cabbage -like flavour. They are often the beauty and the bite in your packaged salad mix.
Mustards are members of the brassica family, as are cabbage, broccoli and other similar vegetables. It is believed that all brassicas were originally descended from one single type of mustard, which was continually reselected for the interesting forms we now have.
Mustards are known to have been consumed in the far east in all likelihood since food growing began, but are only first mentioned in the literature in 5th century B.C. The Chinese mustards, of which I speak here have never become hugely popular elsewhere. Despite being a staple to the Chinese throughout history, seeds that were brought back to Europe in the 18th century by missionaries, failed to capture the imagination of Europeans. Perhaps the taste or lack of knowledge about how to use them was off-putting.
It was really not until the 20th century that mustards have become more popular. But still....when people hear "mibuna, mizuna, giant red or green wave" the names really don't ring a bell much of the time. What is a mustard lover to do?
Well....I guess grow it and hope for converts!
And there are lots of reasons to eat them. Historically mustards were eaten as remedies for a whole legion of conditions-everything from arthritis to stomach disorders to ulcers. And as with all leafy greens they pack a punch nutritionally, being high in Vitamin A and iron.
I will say that in my family, there aren't too many lovers of strong flavoured greens. There is, say for example....me. Mustards, arugulas and even kale are not on the top 10 of the most asked for greens.
But I love 'em. I can make a whole salad out of these greens in their smaller form. And the heat and strong flavour is really much more limited to full leaf mustards like Giant red, and the green varieties such as Green Wave . The beautiful mizunas and mibunas don't bite back- they have pleasant mild flavours regardless of size, but do add unique form and texture to you dishes, with their serrated leaves (mizuna) and strap leaves (mibuna).
And although I don't grow much in the way of hybrids, I do like the newer purple mizuna, and the frilly mizuna. Art in the garden.
Convinced yet that maybe this is worth a try?
Mustards are very easy to grow. Like most of their brassica relations, they thrive in the cooler weather.
They can be planted throughout the season, but if flea beetles find your mustards, you will have one holey mess on your hands. I grow mine only in the cool fall and cold winter in the hoop house when the threat of flea beetles is gone.
As with most greens and brassicas, they like a reasonably fertile soil. You can dig a few inches of compost into your seeding bed, or rows then sprinkle the small seed evenly down the rows, or broadcast.
The seed should be covered with 1/4 inch of soil or so and will emerge in a weeks time. To ensure this, keep the seed bed moist until you see germination.
if you are hoping for larger heads of mustard, thin out your seedlings until they are 6 inches or so apart. But if you are picking the leaves small, keep them planted tight.
If flea beetles do turn out to be a problem, you can very carefully cover your plants with agricultural fabric, or plant a trap crop. I have planted a crop of a green leafy mustard, like Green Wave around my desired crop in the hope that this crop will lure the flea beetles to it. Does it work? To some degree...but when you are selling your produce a few holes in leaves is still too many. if you are simply eating the leaves at home, a few holes is no harm.
Mustards are one of my most important winter crops however. They are extremely winter hardy, and in an unheated hoop house, with a layer of ag fabric, can tolerate very low temperatures. I plant them mid to late September and begin harvesting 3-4 weeks later. I pick the leaves individually..small for salads, larger for braising mixes. And in the spring when the plants start to bolt the cheery yellow flowers are eaten as a tasty treat.
Hungry to try them yet? I hope so- mustards are marvellous, dahling!