Desert Alyssum, Alyssum Desertorum

Desert Alyssum, Alyssum Desertorum

img_9292Also known as desert madwort, (madwort is the common name for all alyssum), or dwarf alyssum

Desert Alyssum is a reseeding annual native to Europe (Italy)[1]http://www.abc.botanic.hr/index.php/abc/article/view/1331 and Asia, introduced into North America[2]USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, http://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=ALDED for medicinal purposes.[3]http://www.cabi.org/isc/datasheet/112171 — a rather in depth article on alyssum desertorum, which compiles all the research sources listed below As with other plants, the word wort means medicine, and mad-wort essentially meant, “medicine to treat madness.”


Primary use: Eating the dry seeds.


All parts are edible raw or cooked. Alyssum desertorum has a rather mild flavor for a brassica. Like all brassicas, the leaves and flowers are edible. Personally, I find the funnest part to eat is the fully dried seeds. To eat the seeds, remove the outer shell by gently rubbing the dry seed-packed stem between your hands and gently blowing away the chaff. Then pop the small tan-colored seeds in your mouth and suck on the seeds. Like the rest of the plant, the flavor is mild, but within 10-20 seconds, the seeds will soften and begin forming a gelatinous glob around each seed. In a short time, they will feel like tomato seeds in the mouth, and if you continue to suck on them, they will get a beebee size gelatinous glob around each seed which is smooth and comfortable in the mouth. Perhaps it’s for this reason that in Asia, the seeds have been cultivated for their oil.


The word “alyssum” comes from the Greek words “a-” (meaning without) and “lyssa” which means “madness.” The tradition is that it was used to treat rabies, which causes madness. Hence the name madwort, meaning “mad-medicine.” [4]See https://thenatureniche.com/2014/05/23/desert-madwort/
According to Jeff Mosley, Extension Range Management Specialist at Montana State University, desert alyssum was used for curing hiccups, mental illness, and rabies. [5]http://www.msuextension.org/BSSA/assets/docs/Alyssum.pdf
Because of the gelatinousness of the seeds, I suspect they could be used to sooth a sore throat.


Desert alyssum is eaten by western harvester ants, rabbits, pronghorn antelope, and sage-grouse. Some sources suggest that desert alyssum accelerates soil erosion and takes surface moisture out of the soil, depriving other plants of that moisture, thus preventing the germination of competing seedlings,[6]http://www.cabi.org/isc/datasheet/112171 thus reducing biodiversity in the soil.[7]https://eco.confex.com/eco/2009/webprogram/Paper16739.html But from what I can see from reading the few sources suggesting these claims, it appears that the problem is cover cropping and overgrazing, because desert alyssum can live through both. These studies were made on sites that according to the study itself, were only conducted on cover cropped, overgrazed lands. When it is the only crop left, some mistakenly blame desert alyssum for the demise of other crops, though it sounds like it’s the animals’ eating of the crops (and tromping them in the process) that deplete the crops.[8]http://www.cabi.org/isc/abstract/19920753644 If I’m reading that correctly, excessive alyssum desertorum (like other drought tolerant wild plants) is an indication that soil has been badly abused by traditional agriculture, and the plant is filling in the gap, preserving the soil from complete sterilization.

My take: I like alyssum desertorum. It’s one of those multi-functional wild edibles that feels so unobtrusive when you see it. Sure, it’s everywhere, but it’s edible, looks nice, and thrives in ridiculously drought-ridden soils.


Though there is no major health risk around desert alyssum, the dried pods can be notoriously annoying when they stick to shoes and socks. Just realize that if the seeds are dry enough to do that, they’re also ripe enough to collect the seeds for future use.

More photos of Alyssum Desertorum

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *