Just when I think I know everything there is to know about wild mustards, I find another one to eat and then do happy kicks about. This time, I am excited about tumblemustard (Sisymbrium altissimum), which you might know better as tumbleweed, because at maturity when it dries out it detaches from its stem and tumbles on the wind, spreading its seed about.
There are numerous species of plants that do this and are referred to collectively as tumbleweed, so don’t just go eating any old tumbleweed just because I said I like it in salad. Tumblemustard (S. altissimum) is a mustard family member, related to broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and other mustards. It starts from a spirally basal rosette of long, many-lobed leaves that are quite different in appearance from the frilly, smaller leaves that appear higher up when the plant bolts. They are mustards so the flowers, generally lemon yellow, are four-petaled.
“Tumblemustard at first does not seem to display the obvious ‘squirrel-tail racemes seen in other mustards,” writes local wild plants professor Cattail Bob Seebeck in his 2012 Survival Plants textbook. “Look for them. They’re there. The linear branch tips are actually seedpods.”
This explains why, several years ago after I moved to Colorado and happily collected a “tumbleweed”—which was then, for me, a curiosity—and brought it back to the Fairplay house at 11,000 feet, a tumblemustard later sprouted. It’s because the thin “branches” held hundreds of seeds within their lengths.
Anyway, it’s crazy it took me so many years to give tumblemustard, also known as Jim Hill mustard (Seebeck, 2012) a try. But after recent success with other mustards—specifically the unopened bud clusters of hoary cress (L. draba) and the pre-flowering shoots of musk or blue mustard (Chorispora tenella)—the other day down in Aurora I finally gathered some young, lighter green tumblemustard leaves, both the young, unfurling frilly ones and young, divided, basal rosette leaves—to test in the kitchen.
These came from a somewhat dry field around 6,000 feet, near a bike path, on private property that I had permission to forage. Nearby, a few prairie dogs yelled at me, and in the distance there was a small creek lined with cottonwoods, to give you a sense of the habitat. On my walk that day I’d seen many young tumblemustards, which I’ve been examining periodically over the past few years. Not all seemed fit for food forage. Some were too close to the bike path, or to metal detritus of a previous era that had me questioning what the land had been used for prior, or to the prairie dog mounds. I’m kind of picky like that. But when I found some lush specimens I liked, I gathered a few handfuls of young basal leaves, and clipped the top bundles of frilly leaves that were just starting to bolt.
Back at the house I gave them a good washing and chopped them into bite-sized pieces, then popped a young basal leaf bit into my mouth. The mustard flavor was there, but relatively mild compared to pennycress, and the midribs had a nice crunch and surprising juiciness. Not bad. I gave Gregg a taste and his assessment was similar. Salad time!
Never Get Tired of Wild Salads
For last night’s salad I mixed the chopped greens of slightly-too-old and rather bitter wild lettuce salvaged from Jim’s garden in Aurora along with the tumblemustard greens. I also included wild orache (Atriplex sp.), a triangular-leaved spinach relative that has a hint of salt to it, and the chopped stems and leaves of a young salsify plant (Trapogon sp.), also salvaged from Jim’s garden. I think this might be my first wild salad whose greens were 100% wild. I found it a little dense due to the orache, but the mustard lightened things up a bit. To the wild green mix I added carrots and sweet corn cut from the cob for texture, with avocado and a nice Balsamic vinegar and oil dressing, courtesy of Gregg’s mom, served on the side.
“I love your wild salads,” Gregg said after polishing off my tumbleweed creation. “They make me feel so healthy.”
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