What is Lesquerella?

Karyn Maier

Lesquerella is a genus belonging to the Brassicaceae family that consists of more than 70 flowering plants. A close relative to cabbage and the mustard plant, most plants in the Lesquerella genus are native to southwestern United States and Mexico. Collectively, most varieties of Lesquerella are referred to by the simple nickname of bladderpod (sometimes spelled bladder pod). A resinous oil extracted from the seeds of several members of the Lesquerella genus shares the same name. However, bladderpod oil is most often obtained from Lesquerella fendleri.

Man mowing the grass
Man mowing the grass

Bladderpod oil, or lesquerella oil is abundant in lesquerolic acid, a type of hydroxy fatty acid. Hydroxy fatty acids are used commercially to produce plastics, nylons, resins, engine lubricants, etc. They are also used in the manufacture of cosmetics and in chemical peels. The only other source of hydroxyl acid that can be used on a commercial scale is the castor bean. However, castor oil extraction has been severely limited in the U.S. due to allergic reactions experienced by workers while harvesting and processing the oil.

Lesquerella oil is largely composed of lesquerolic, oleic, and linolenic fatty acids, in that order of concentration. However, it also contains trace amounts of auricolic, stearic, and palmitic fatty acids. Of the handful of Lesquerella species that can provide an oil of similar fatty acid concentration, L. fendleri is most valued since it is a prolific producer, yielding a better quality oil than castor. These factors have prompted agricultural scientists to investigate the feasibility of substituting Lesquerella oil for castor for commercial use. This would also positively impact the domestic economy in the U.S. since castor oil is otherwise imported from Indonesia, Brazil, and the Netherlands.

In the past, the barrier to using Lesquerella oil commercially was its color. Lesquerella typically renders reddish brown oil, which isn’t suitable to manufacture certain products, especially cosmetics. However, removing the pigment from the oil isn’t cost-effective. To solve this problem, the Arizona-based U.S. Water Conservation Laboratory developed a hybrid of Lesquerella with yellow seeds, which carried much less of the troublesome pigments. These seeds became available to the commercial agricultural market in the late 1990s.

Lesquerella may prove valuable in other commercial applications. For instance, researchers are looking into the possibility of using the gum extracted from the meal of the plant to use in a manner similar to xanthan gum. In this capacity, Lesquerella gum may be used as a thickener in products ranging from ice cream to paint. In addition, the meal left over after extracting the gum, which has a fairly high protein content, may be used as a protein supplement in livestock feed.

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