Cutting the Mustard

Every March, Nashville Mustard shines from old lawns at a handful of Metro Parks. The plant is a true Nashville native: an endemic wildflower that only happens in a few counties. And when it happens in blankets of bright yellow, it is glorious. It’s a Nashville Superbloom.

And then every March, the mowers come.
I worry if the plants had time to set enough seeds to make a blanket the next year, and the next.

[flattened, hairy, round seedpods/silicles]

Nashville Mustard (Paysonia lescurii) is sort of a secret. Who’s heard of it? And why should we care? You can’t even buy it, because no nursery anywhere sells the plants or the seeds.

I vote we make it a Thing. A Good Nashville Thing. It could be nonpartisan PR that anyone could celebrate.
At the very least, it could be an annual Social Media Superbloom Photo-op. And a reason to learn why “native matters.” Nashville Mustard is a piece of old Nashville: really old, like when the buffalo roamed.

Much of our part of Tennessee was grassland, where “the combination of grazing, browsing, and trampling by large herbivores maintained short stature grasslands in which endemic plants such as … Paysonia … evolved.”*

Buffalo were the first mowers of Nashville Mustard, but our lawnmowers may the be last.

All the Nashville Mustard patches nearby are in Metro Parks. Why? Because those are the only places with old lawns that can’t get Developed. I mean lawns with seed banks that have been around for a long time (as pasture, field, thin-soil-over-limestone, etc.).
But even these protected lands aren’t protected against mowing schedules that don’t favor conservation. They aren’t protected against herbicides, or renovation, or invasive plants, or turf-grass seeding. 

So this year, I emailed the Director of Metro Parks.  I introduced myself and tried not to sound like a crackpot.
At first, I deleted all my exclamation marks, as well the words “love” and “gorgeous.” But then I put them back in.

I asked if we could explore the possibility of delaying the first spring mow at certain Parks.
The goal would be to let native wildflowers live long enough to set seed and ensure recovery year after year.

I hoped that my use of botanical names—properly italicized—might balance my exclamations of gorgeous love.

I said,
“Nashville Mustard … can survive in untreated lawns, but only if the lawns are free of herbicides (pre- and post-emergent) and only if mowing is delayed until the flowers have produced seed.”

I offered to help with the timing, year to year, and to solicit helpers if necessary. Say, from the Middle Tennessee chapter of Wild Ones (native plant gardening), whose national motto is “Healing the Earth One Yard at a Time.”

And BOOM! 

That very afternoon I got two emails from Metro Parks, asking for EXACT LOCATIONS of Nashville Mustard.

And here’s the big boom: “The sooner we can identify the exact locations, the more likely we are to possibly be able to delay the mowers.”

Which means:
Metro is not going to . . .  cut the mustard! 

Or, they’re going to try to not cut the mustard till later.

Exclamation marks! Love! Gorgeous!

If you can add to my list of Metro Parks with Nashville Mustard, please let me know.

Fort Negley
Elmington Park
Sevier Park
St. Bernard Park
Steeplechase at Warner Parks
Reservoir Park at 8th Ave S.
(edited to add: Madison Community Center)

I emailed crude maps of each park, with the mustard populations outlined in yellow. (Crude = screenshots of Google maps, edited w/ markup.)


Dream #1: A Management Plan. When do the seeds dehisce / open? When do they germinate? When is the best time to mow? What is the optimum height for a mower blade? Do the seeds need additional disturbance, like a plowing to mimic buffalo hooves? Should these areas never be over-seeded w/ turfgrasses? Etc.

Dream #2: Seeds for everyone! Imagine if Nashville homeowners could toss seeds into the lawn for home-grown mustard. We could even have a “short stature” mix: Nashville Mustard, Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica), Early Buttercup (Ranunculus fascicularis), American field pansy (Viola bicolor), Glade Sandwort (Mononeuria patula), and other low-growing, early-blooming Nashville natives that would transform monoculture turfgrass into a legit habitat for our foodweb.

But for now, I’m thrilled we get a No-Mow March for the Mustard.

After I wrote the above, I learned that a week before my email, someone else told Metro Parks about the Nashville Mustard, and this someone is an environmental consultant!
Hearing from two different people within a week was all it took to bring this topic to light.

Here’s the source for my quote about our native grasslands and large herbivores: “Science Needs of Southeastern Grassland Species of Conservation Concern: A Framework for Species Status Assessments” (link here).

Paysonia lescurii at the UTK Herbarium: link.
Paysonia lescurii at the Tennessee-Kentucky Plant Atlas: link.

SidewalkNature post about Nashville Mustard from a few years ago, here.
My Instagram posts about Nashville Mustard: at Fort Negley and at Elmington Park in 2023; Elmington in 2022.

Wild Ones Middle TN Chapter (native plant gardening and landscaping), link.


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Joanna Brichetto is a naturalist and writer in Nashville, the Hackberry-tree capital of the world.
She writes about everyday marvels amid everyday habitat loss at and on Instagram (@Jo_Brichetto); and her essays have appeared in Creative NonfictionBrevity, Ecotone, Fourth Genre, Hippocampus, The Hopper, Flyway, The Common, The Fourth River, and other journals. An almanac of urban nature encounters is forthcoming.

5 thoughts on “Cutting the Mustard

  1. I went to Elmington Park today and picked some of the Nashville mustard. My backyard is a meadow leading down to Richland Creek, with a section that we aren’t mowing at all (and you should hear the crickets there). I’ll put the seeds in that section and see what happens. I always enjoy your blog posts! Thank you!

    1. Crickets are a great indicator: I don’t hear them from as many yards as I used to. Good for you and your meadow project! Nashville Mustard might do better in the part of our lawns that we do mow, since it needs light to germinate and “disturbance” to thrive. But let me know how your experiment goes?

      1. Thanks for the information on doing better where we mow. I’ll try to figure out how I can make that happen.

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