Mustard has been grown by man since ancient times. It figures prominently in a famous parable of the Gospels:
Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof. - Matthew 13: 31-32
Most people are familiar with yellow or brown mustard as a condiment on their hot dogs and sandwiches, or an ingredient in their cooking.
This comes for grinding the tiny mustard seeds into powder and mixing it with water, salt, and other ingredients to form the many varieties of condiments available in the store. Mustard was as common and popular during the Civil War as it is today.
Less popular today, mustard greens were once a staple vegetable in the United States, especially in the South. They can be eaten raw or cooked up like collard greens, turnip greens, kale, and other leafy vegetables.
In his definitive 1863 text, Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests, Francis Porcher writes, "The demand for the production of this plant as a local irritant, should induce every planter and farmer to grow it. Enormous quantities are required to supply the armies; besides that, it is largely consumed in every household." Porcher continues to explain that mustard is useful in cooking as well as in its capacity to produce mustard oil, which was valuable in industry, agriculture (feeding livestock), and domestic use (cooking and burning for light). Mustard is very closely related to the canola or rapeseed plant, which was used in the 19th century, just as it is today, to produce canola oil for cooking and industrial applications.
|Commercially available mustard plasters from 1906|
|Commercially available mustard plasters from the early 20th century|
In Dr. Joseph Carson's Materia Medica of 1851, mustard is listed as an important medicine, primarily as a rubefacient, which is a substance that causes redness of the skin by dilating blood vessels and increasing circulation when applied topically. Carson's reasoning seems to be that such application would help to reduce pain and inflammation by improving circulation in the nearby skin, but the correlation is not fully explained. Perhaps this is something of a holdover from the heroic era of medicine, which was based on the humors of the body and included such practices as bleeding and cupping. Carson also lists mustard seed as an effective laxative.
During the Civil War, the Confederate Medial Department listed mustard as an important medicinal plant for which it would pay 75 cents per pound of seeds.