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the web of life in southern Africa

Brassica nigra (Black Mustard)

Life > eukaryotes > Archaeoplastida > Chloroplastida > Charophyta > Streptophytina > Plantae (land plants) > Tracheophyta (vascular plants) > Euphyllophyta > Lignophyta (woody plants) > Spermatophyta (seed plants) > Angiospermae (flowering plants) > Eudicotyledons > Core Eudicots > Rosids > Eurosid II > Order: Brassicales > Family: Brassicaceae > Genus: Brassica

A weedy species native to the Mediterranean region that is one of three main plant species with seeds used in the making of mustard.

Brassica nigra is native to the Mediterranean region. Analysis of seeds in archaeological sites show that it has occurred as a weed in association with the growing of wheat and barley from their domestication in the Neolithic period onwards. The spread of Brassica nigra worldwide has often been through its contamination of cereal grain. 

Brassica nigra is used by people in three ways:

  • it is eaten as a green vegetable;
  • the seeds are a source of a mild tasting nonvolatile oil; and
  • its major use has been as a spice. Mustard seeds have been used as a spice at least since written history began in Babylonia and India and their use is frequently referred to in Greek and Roman writings and in the Bible. Traditional mustard is made by mixing a small amount of White Mustard Sinapis alba, with a lot of Black Mustard seeds as well as adding other spices.

Up until Medieval times, Black Mustard appears to have been harvested mainly from wild populations. From Medieval times onwards, it has been planted as a crop although from the 1950's onwards it has been largely dropped as a preferred crop in favour of Brown Mustard Brassica juncea. This change of preference is because cultivars of Brown Mustard have been developed that retain their seeds till after harvesting whereas for Black Mustard seeds can only be obtained by repeatedly hand harvesting ripe fruit through the fruiting period, which is less efficient than mechanical harvesting.


  • Sauer, J.D. 1993. Historical geography of crop plants - a select roster. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida.

Text by Hamish Robertson