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What is a Brassicaceae?

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  • Written By: Angie Bates
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 17 November 2016
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Formerly known as cruciferae, brassicaceae is a family of plants most commonly referred to as the mustard or the cabbage family. A large and important family, brassicaceae contains many common vegetables, such as cabbage and broccoli, as well as ornamental plants, such as alyssum, and weeds, like bittercress. The mustard family consists of approximately 330 genera and 3,700 species.

Brassicaceae plants can usually be easily identified by their flowers. Species generally have clusters of flowers with four petals forming a cross shape. Flowers are usually white or yellow but can be red, blue, orange, or pink. Ornamental flowers, particularly, have a greater variety in their petal color. The cruciform arrangement of petals is what gave this family its original name, cruciferae.

Annual or perennial, brassicaceae plants usually have two chambered seed pods and alternating leaves climbing up their stems. These plants are found mostly in temperate regions in both the northern and the southern hemispheres. With a generally worldwide distribution, brassicaceae is found most diversely in the Mediterranean region. Many species also possess glycosinolate, which gives them the odor distinctive to broccoli or cabbage.

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The most popular plants in this family can be found in the genus Brassica. These plants include cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, turnips, and brussels sprouts. Commercial plants have been domesticated and specifically bred to produce plants with disproportional parts. The use of the plant usually determines which parts are disproportionately large. For example, cabbage has huge leaves, broccoli large flower buds, and turnips large roots.

Brassicaceae is called the mustard family because several species produce mustard. Brassica juncea is the species most commonly used to produce condiment quality mustard. Horseradish, another condiment, is a product of Armoracia lapathifolia, also in the family. Though not used to produce horseradish, radishes, Raphanus sativus, are also found in the mustard family.

Still other species are used in common foods. For example, Brassica napis, also called the rape plant, has several commercial uses. The leaves are used in salads, whole seeds are found in bird seed, and processed seeds are an ingredient in canola oil.

During the late twentieth century, an attempt to make scientific names more uniform required a change to the name of Cruciferae family. Under the new guidelines, family names needed to have the "-aceae" suffix and begin with the most common or important genus in the family. Thus, Cruciferae became Brassicaceae after the genus Brassica which includes many of the commercially produced vegetables.

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