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California Artists and Chefs Embrace the Challenge of the ‘Superbloom’ of Wild Mustard

by Michael Nguyen
8 comments
superbloom

Max Kingery, a clothing designer based in Los Angeles, has faced questions about his enthusiasm for removing the vibrant yellow blooms that blanket the hillsides. As the designer behind a spring and summer line dyed with these plants, he doesn’t take offense at accusations of destroying California’s “superbloom.” Instead, he sees it as an opportunity to raise awareness about the destructive nature of wild black mustard, which has spread rapidly throughout the state after an unusually wet winter.

This spring, wild mustard became one of the most prominent wildflowers in California, seemingly appearing everywhere. However, as temperatures rise, it begins to wither, posing a fire hazard in a state already plagued by wildfires. The plant’s stalks can act as fire ladders, allowing flames to climb and spread. Additionally, mustard smothers native plants, transforming the landscape and hindering the growth of other species. Among the various types of wild mustards in California, black mustard or Brassica nigra is considered the most pervasive.

Kingery is part of a growing community of artists, designers, and chefs who have taken on the challenge of the mustard invasion by incorporating the plant into their work. Foragers organize edible hikes to gather the peppery flowers and enjoy the leaves. Workshops and instructional guides have emerged, demonstrating how to use the plant to create paper, fertilizer, and even a spicy version of the well-known condiment.

Kingery’s clothing line, aptly named “Pervasive Bloom,” features sweatshirts, pants, and tank tops naturally dyed with mustard. On the Olderbrother company website, a model proudly showcases a mustard-dyed jacket while embracing the uprooted weed. Other photos depict the clearing of land.

Inside the Olderbrother store in Los Angeles, a large panel made from the plant’s stalks, leaves, and flowers, woven by designer Cecilia Bordarampe, serves as decoration. The material was obtained from the initial harvest, during which Kingery’s team collected around 450 pounds (204 kilograms) to create the dye. Since then, they have continued removing over 100 pounds (45 kilograms) per week, mostly from public land in Los Angeles.

Despite these efforts, Kingery acknowledges that the amount they have gathered merely scratches the surface of the problem. Black mustard, originally from Eurasia, was introduced to California in the 1700s and has become increasingly widespread due to record rainfall and the aftermath of wildfires. While state and local agencies work to remove mustard from managed lands, it has spread to other areas.

During its peak bloom this spring, vast stretches of yellow adorned freeways, hillsides, and even sidewalk cracks. Kingery admits that the physical task has been demanding. However, witnessing native plants sprouting in cleared areas makes it all worthwhile. Obtaining the desired hues requires a substantial amount of mustard, which aligns with their objective.

Erin Berkowitz, an artist from Berbo Studio, specializes in making dyes from invasive species and collaborated with Kingery to create the dye for his clothing line. Berkowitz also offers classes alongside a chef who utilizes mustard greens to craft pesto and incorporates the flowers into dressings.

Berkowitz sees their work as a demonstration of the possibilities that arise when people become aware of the potential uses for invasive plants. Watching an entire hill in a park being denuded of mustard gives her hope.

Beneath the towering stalks of mustard, which can reach heights of over 8 feet (2.4 meters), native plants such as blue lupine and poppies struggle to reach sunlight. In the neighborhood of El Sereno in east L.A., one public space regained a healthy, functional native ecology after the harvest.

Jen Toy of Test Plot, an organization that collaborated with Kingery and Berkowitz, aims to help people restore biodiversity in their neighborhoods. Toy believes it’s crucial to expand the definition of land care and engage individuals who may not identify as environmentalists.

To promote awareness and action, ecological horticulturist Alyssa Kahn and artist Nadine Allan created a zine about the uses of black mustard. The zine showcases how the plant can be transformed into paper, face masks, and even a natural pesticide for garden soil.

Kahn’s motivation stems in part from knowing people who have lost almost everything to wildfires. Their goal is to incentivize action and educate others about the larger-scale impact of mustard invasion.

Jutta Burger from the California Invasive Plant Council commends the creativity shown by artists and chefs in utilizing invasive species. She suggests that people contact land management agencies to gather leftover seeds when areas are cleared. While complete eradication is unlikely, similar efforts in the past have made a noticeable impact. For example, when chefs began incorporating the predatory lionfish into their recipes and serving it in restaurants, its population decreased, and awareness of its threat to native marine life grew.

Burger emphasizes the importance of recognizing that the fields of yellow mustard were once filled with a diverse array of colors. By broadening this understanding, people can appreciate the significance of preserving native ecosystems.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about wild mustard

What is the “superbloom” of wild mustard in California?

The “superbloom” refers to the abundant growth of wild mustard, particularly black mustard or Brassica nigra, in California following an unusually wet winter. It has proliferated across the state, blanketing hillsides and landscapes with yellow blooms.

Why is wild mustard considered destructive?

Wild mustard poses several concerns. First, as temperatures rise, it withers and becomes highly flammable, increasing the risk of wildfires in fire-prone areas. Its stalks can act as fire ladders, allowing flames to climb. Additionally, it smothers native plants, inhibiting their growth and transforming the landscape into a monoculture. Its rapid spread threatens biodiversity and disrupts native ecosystems.

How are artists and chefs addressing the invasion of wild mustard?

Artists, designers, and chefs have found creative ways to utilize wild mustard. They harvest the plant and use it for natural dyes, creating clothing lines and other artistic products. Chefs incorporate mustard greens into recipes like pesto and incorporate the flowers into dressings. These efforts not only raise awareness about the invasive species but also demonstrate the potential uses of the plant.

Can the invasion of wild mustard be completely eradicated?

Complete eradication of wild mustard is unlikely, especially in areas where it has been established for a long time. However, efforts to manage and control its spread are ongoing. Organizations, land management agencies, and individuals work to remove mustard from managed lands and encourage responsible practices. While it may not be possible to eliminate it entirely, creative approaches can help mitigate its impact and restore native ecosystems.

More about wild mustard

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8 comments

Emma June 16, 2023 - 4:10 pm

who knew wild mustard was such a problem? kudos to da artists for usin it in their creations, turnin somethin negative into somethin beautiful. keep it up!

Reply
Alex June 16, 2023 - 10:37 pm

i saw dem yellow fields of mustard in California, didn’t kno dey cud b so bad. but dyes n pesto sound delicious. gotta try it out sometime!

Reply
Lisa June 16, 2023 - 11:26 pm

luv how dis article talks bout biodiversity restoration. we need more ppl carin bout da environment n findin creative ways 2 protect it. im inspired!

Reply
Mike June 17, 2023 - 12:23 am

wild mustard ain’t just a pretty flower, huh? gotta appreciate da efforts of dose artists n chefs fightin against its spread. let’s spread awareness too!

Reply
Sarah June 17, 2023 - 1:10 am

da superbloom sounds amazing, but didn’t kno it cud harm da environment. props to da artists n chefs for takin action n showin us how 2 use it creatively.

Reply
Chris June 17, 2023 - 5:47 am

never realized wild mustard had such a big impact. dey shud totally make more zines n workshops so ppl kno wat’s happenin. great job artists n chefs!

Reply
Mark June 17, 2023 - 10:54 am

i had no idea wild mustard was so destructive n can cause wildfires. it’s cool dat dey turnin it into art tho. maybe we shud do sumthin bout it in our neighborhood.

Reply
Jane June 17, 2023 - 11:36 am

wow dis article show how da artist and chefs in California rly creative. dey usin da wild mustard in dyin clothes n makin pesto. gr8 way 2 raise awareness bout invasiv species!

Reply

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