Chefs, Artists Confront Wild Mustard 'Superbloom'

Foragers have led edible hikes to pick its peppery flower and munch on its leaves.

Wild mustard flowers bloom along a trail in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, June 8, 2023.
Wild mustard flowers bloom along a trail in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, June 8, 2023.
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

SAN DIEGO (AP) — While ripping out yellow blooms blanketing hillsides in Los Angeles, Max Kingery has been questioned about his fervor for killing flowers.

But the clothing designer who used the plants to dye his spring and summer lines said he takes no offense at being accused of pillaging this part of California's "superbloom." Instead, he sees it as an opportunity to raise awareness about a destructive flower that proliferated in the state following an unusually wet winter: wild black mustard.

Mustard was among the most prominent of wild flowering plants that seemingly popped up everywhere in California this spring. As temperatures warm it is starting to die, making it tinder for wildfires in a state that has been ravaged by blazes. Its stalks can act as fire ladders, causing flames to climb.

Mustard also smothers native plants, transforming the landscape. Its leaves and roots inhibit the growth of other species, creating a mono-thicket that spreads rapidly. There are numerous kinds of wild mustards in California, but black mustard or Brassica nigra is considered among the most pervasive.

Kingery is part of a growing group of artists, designers and chefs, who are tackling the invasion by harvesting the plant to use in everything from dyes to pesto.

Foragers have led edible hikes to pick its peppery flower and munch on its leaves. There have been workshops and instruction guides on how to turn it into paper, fertilizer and a spicy version of the well-known condiment by the same name.

Kingery's line, aptly named "Pervasive Bloom," features sweatshirts, pants, tank tops and other items dyed naturally using mustard. On the website for his company, Olderbrother, a model embraces the uprooted weed while donning a mustard-dyed jacket. Other photos show the clearing of the land.

The Olderbrother store in Los Angeles is decorated with a huge panel of the plant's stalks, leaves and flowers that were woven on a loom by designer Cecilia Bordarampe. The material came from the first harvest when Kingery said his team initially harvested about 450 pounds (204 kilograms) to make the dye. They have continued, removing more than a 100 pounds (45 kilograms) a week ever since, mostly from public land in Los Angeles.

Even that amount is only nipping at the problem, Kingery said.

The plant from Eurasia was first brought to California in the 1700s — it has been found in the adobe bricks of missions. But its presence exploded this year after a record amount of rainfall from December to April. Years of wildfires also created more spaces for the plant that thrives in disturbed lands.

State and local agencies remove mustard from managed lands, but it's spread to places beyond.

At its peak bloom this spring, undulating swaths of yellow lined freeways. Hillsides jutting up from urban landscapes glowed. Sidewalk cracks were abloom.

"Physically, it's been demanding," Kingery said. "And yes, there seems in sheer volume, if you zoom out a bit, that there could be enough wild mustard here to make salads and dyed sweatshirts for everyone in the United States."

But when Kingery sees native plants sprouting in plots that have been cleared, it makes it all worth it, he said. And, he added, to get the hues that he wants requires a lot of mustard, which in this context is a good thing.

"We don't want to rip a bunch of plants out of the ground for no reason," Kingery said. "The idea of something being utilized that is growing out of the sidewalk is a pretty cool concept."

Artist Erin Berkowitz of Berbo Studio makes dyes from invasive species, including the dye for Kingery's clothing line. She has offered classes along with a chef who crafts pesto from the mustard greens and mashes the flowers into dressing.

"This is an abundant art supply that is all around us." Berkowitz said.

She said her work with Kingery showed the possibilities of what can happen if more people become aware of its uses.

"Visually we watched a whole hill of a park be denuded of mustard, which was a very hopeful thing," she said.

Underneath the towering stalks of mustard, which can grow more more than 8-feet (2.4 meters) tall, blue lupine, poppies and other native plants were fighting to reach sunlight. "One public space, one whole neighborhood, returned to having healthy, functional native ecology," Berkowitz said after the harvest in the working-class neighborhood of El Sereno in east L.A.

Jen Toy of Test Plot, an organization that partnered with Kingery and Berkowitz and helps people restore biodiversity to their neighborhoods, said "it's really about broadening what we mean by land care, and getting other folks who might not see themselves as like environmentalists interested."

To that end, ecological horticulturist Alyssa Kahn and artist Nadine Allan made a zine, a digital magazine, about the uses of black mustard, including to make paper, a face mask and even a kind of natural pesticide to till into garden soil.

Kahn said she was motivated to act in part because she has friends who lost nearly everything to wildfires.

"We wanted to incentivize people to do something about it," she said, and educate them.

"They just look so pretty," Kahn added. "They have those yellow flowers, and if you don't really know kind of what's happening on a larger scale, you might say, oh they're just a sea of yellow flowers."

Jutta Burger of the California Invasive Plant Council applauds the ingenuity and suggests people contact land management agencies to gather left-behind seeds when areas are cleared.

"You'll never completely get rid of it, at least where it's been established for a long time," she said.

Still, Burger said similar efforts to creatively use something have made an impact. For example, she said, when chefs started crafting recipes involving the predatory lionfish and serving it in restaurants, its population decreased in areas, and it became widely known that the species was a threat to native marine life.

"One thing we would like to make sure people know is those yellow fields out there, they were once fields of not just yellow — they were fields of yellow, purple, pink, and blue," Burger said.

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