Musing about Mustards

American Winter Cress (Barbarea orthoceras) Flowers
A closeup detail of the flowers of American Winter Cress (Barbarea orthoceras).

As I begin to tackle some of the more difficult plants here on Vancouver Island I find that I’m spending a great deal of time musing about mustards. Earlier last month I wrote about Field Mustard (Brassica campestris), a common mustard found at the Airpark Lagoon in Courtenay, British Columbia. On my regular walks around around the estuary I noticed another smaller mustard growing along the side of the pathway and in the natural non-mowed grassy areas of the park.

I’m starting to get a little more thoughtful about documenting relevant features of plants (though I’m not always consistent as almost three year-olds can be demanding of attention – it helps to focus their attention on the subject plant but counting petals and leaves can only hold their interest for a short time!). If there are enough plants and I’m sure that it’s a weedy species I also occasionally collect a sample for further examination at home.

American Winter Cress (Barbarea orthoceras) Flowers
American Winter Cress (Barbarea orthoceras) showing flowers and simple upper stem leaves.

I’m reasonably sure that the mustard that I recently photographed is American Winter Cress (Barbarea orthoceras). While Plants of Coastal British Columbia is useful in narrowing down the identification, the Illustrated Flora of British Columbia is essential when it comes to plants that can be very similar in appearance. eFlora BC, British Columbia’s on-line database of plants is very helpful for comparison and links the text and line drawings of the Illustrated Flora with photographs of the plants.

American Winter Cress (Barbarea orthoceras) Basal Leaf
The basal leaf of American Winter Cress (Barbarea orthoceras).

So what makes me think that this is American Winter Cress? Well, it is obviously in the Mustard family (Brassicaceae) which is characterized by flowers with four petals. Generally, mustards are keyed out based on their siliques or pods – this plant was still in flower so there wasn’t much help there. I’ll go back and collect a few samples of the pods to confirm my identification later.

In addition to taking photographs of the flowers I also took photographs of the leaves on the stalk and the basal leaves that looked very different. The Illustrated Flora of BC describes B. orthoceras as having basal leaves that are pinnately lobed with 1 to 5 pairs of lateral lobes with a large terminal lobe. The leaves are described as becoming simpler as they move up the stem. They are often clasping and sometimes long-fringed or sparsely short-hairy. All of these characteristics apply to the plants I photographed.

American Winter Cress (Barbarea orthoceras) Stem Leaf
The small, simple stem leaf of American Winter Cress (Barbarea orthoceras).

I’m enjoying the challenge of trying to identify these common plants and in doing so am starting to appreciate them for their simple beauty. They can be found almost anywhere and they’re remarkable for being ignored so easily and so often.