Invasive mustard is here to stay. But you can use it to dye clothes

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People harvest mustard plants to use as dyes for Older Brother. Photo courtesy of Older Brother.

Invasive mustard plants have taken over the hills around LA. Some folks are taking a creative approach to getting rid of them. Local designer Erin Berkowitz, a clothing line called Older Brother, and Test Plot, a community  group that takes care of public lands, are collaborating to make clothes using these plants. 

“Erin actually introduced me to Max from Older Brother, who had this idea to take the mustard that you see all over the Santa Monica Mountains and upcycle it into a dye product for his clothing brand,” says Jennifer Toy, who leads Test Plot. “So when we do a lot of our work, and we leave the mustard on the ground, it becomes a fire hazard. And if we remove it, it often goes into the green bin or landfill. So I really love the idea of creatively reusing.”

Berkowitz says they brew hundreds of pounds of mustard as if it were tea, and extract a powerful yellow dye from it, so Older Brother can use it on their current clothing line, which features sturdy materials and lots of pockets.  

“Older brother has this concept of creating clothing that is very much engaging with the environment where it's made. … It could be worn for gardening, for removing invasive species, like what we use to dye the clothing itself. It's this full circle story they're telling with this line,” she says.

She continues, “For better or worse, the mustard, in some form, is here to stay. … This is a very sustainable material that will be around for a long time. So removing it from the land and utilizing it for this purpose … is part of that full circle.”

Erin Berkowitz harvests mustard plants. Photo courtesy of Older Brother.

Mustard is an ancient plant from Eurasia and now can be found worldwide, Toy explains. It came to California in the 1700s and now lives in half of the state’s coastal scrub area. It survives well because its seeds germinate within two days of rainfall, whereas native plants take three to nine months to grow. 

She adds, “It's also allelopathic, which means it releases toxins that deter [the growth of other neighboring plants]. And in the summer, the skeletons of the tall dried-out stalks, which this year have been up to 12 feet high because of the amazing rainfall we've had, they stay there and they serve as fire ladders to nearby tree canopies.” 

When the mustard plants are gone, Test Plot replaces them with native species. For example, at Elephant Hill, which is one of Northeast LA's largest remaining open spaces, they planted sage, buckwheat, coyote brush, and monkey flower, Toy says. 

Jennifer Toy harvests mustard plants. Photo courtesy of Older Brother.