Purple mustard may be a weed, but it’s a sure sign of spring
Since I first collected bouquets of purple “flowers” with grubby little-kid fingers, I’ve had a place in my heart for this weed.
The harbinger of spring, purple mustard, rings in the season with fields of lilac haze in open fields, roadside medians, around mailboxes and everywhere else.
Chorispora tenella, also known as “blue mustard,” “musk mustard,” or “crossflower,” blooms quickly and doesn’t stay around long in this part of the country. But while it’s here, people sure notice it.
This weed takes advantage of our poor, clay soils and the lack of competition from other plants, establishing itself on vacant lots, disturbed soils or even in town between sidewalk cracks.
Some people call it “dishrag weed,” attempting to identify its scent with a sour dishrag. The scent isn’t entirely unpleasant, it’s reminiscent of a coffee can full of dusty crayons, if you ask me. But it is distinctive and some people can’t stand the stink.
Despite that (and I can’t believe I’m saying this), I really don’t mind this weed.
Yes, it’s probably against the rules for any gardener to harbor affinity for weeds. But before you judge, hear me out.
Purple mustard is a cheery, fairly harmless weed. It’s often the first blooming thing to herald the end of winter and the beginning of spring, before anything else springs from the soil. And for this, I kind of like it.
Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t plant it on purpose, but I don’t exactly hate it. The violet blur it brings to the landscape isn’t the lavender fields of Provence, France, but still, it’s not hideous.
As far as weeds are concerned, purple mustard is rather innocuous compared to others. It doesn’t stick to anything, doesn’t have prickly thorns, and doesn’t get caught in pets’ ears or paws. It doesn’t poison the soil around it, like Russian knapweed. It doesn’t kill anything that eats it (Russian knapweed, again!).
And I’m pretty sure the folks living in the drought-stricken southeast parts of Colorado would argue that purple mustard is a lot less damaging than tumbleweeds, which lately have barricaded people in homes, buried cars and caused extreme fire danger. Russian thistle and kochia are far more damaging.
Dare I say that purple mustard is a somewhat pleasant weed?
I actually think of it as a canary in the coal mine of weeds, if you will. Purple mustard’s arrival is a signal that I need to get my act together and prepare to defeat the weeds I actually care about destroying. The purple blooms warn me that other, more harmful species are around the corner.
The flowers also signal something else. For years I thought I was violently allergic to what my mother referred to as those “stinking purple flowers.” I blamed them for my stuffed-up nose and endless sneezing. But in fact, allergy tests revealed that I’m incredibly allergic to tree pollen, which happens to start flying right around the time that purple mustard is in full bloom. Whenever I see purple mustard, I know I need to start taking my allergy medicine again.
Bees and butterflies seem to like it, and I don’t have much else blooming in the yard for them to access this time of year, so I don’t mind leaving it alone.
But if purple mustard bugs you, don’t worry, it will be gone in a few weeks, when the weeds burn up and somehow disappear, leaving behind seeds for next year. The curved seed pods measure just a little more than an inch long.
This is where you can control the weed for next spring. If you really don’t want it to grow there again, collect the plants before they go to seed, bag them and throw them in the trash.
I wouldn’t bother spraying purple mustard once it has matured and flowered. Some herbicides won’t work on it anyway, once it is full-grown. You’d be better off waiting until next year and catching it before it blooms.
Or, you could just embrace the purple haze, take a whiff of that distinctive smell and smile because it’s finally spring.