Sunday, May 2, 2021

Plant Story--Sweet Alyssum, Lobularia maritima

Sweet alyssum is a pretty plant with white to purple flowers, frequently planted in gardens. 

sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima
sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima

It is in the mustard and cabbage family, Brassicaceae, and has the typical simple, cross-shaped flowers. The scientific name is Lobularia maritimaLobularia from the Latin lobulus, a small pod, and maritima means of the sea, as in maritime. It is native to southern Europe and into west Asia. In places without a winter, it may be perennial, but across North America it is grown as an annual. Seed it in just before the end of spring frosts. Sweet alyssum isn't picky about soil, water, or exposure, (though it doesn't grow well in deep shade or soggy soil), making it very easy to grow. It flowers quickly, will continue to flower all summer, and has a lovely fragrance (if you get your nose down close to the flowers). Under many conditions sweet alyssum will self-sow, scattering seeds that produce plants in subsequent years. The result of all that is that sweet alyssum is a common garden plant that people like but don't get excited over. 

sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima
sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima

It is one of many small European plants in the mustard family. A big group of closely related little plants (5 in the genus Lobularia, as many as 170 in the very similar genus Alyssum, about 20 species now classified as Fibigia) were called madworts, wort meaning plant. Alyssum, as in sweet alyssum's common name, is an old Latin word meaning "not mad." Romans thought the madworts cured or prevented the madness that came from being bitten by mad dogs, that is, prevented rabies. That tradition goes back to at least Dioscorides whose 64 BCE medical treatise became a pillar of European medicinal knowledge. Dioscorides lists only one alysum, a plant now in the genus Fibigia. He wrote that alyssum was said to cure dogs of madness if fed it to them. There are a lot of treatments for rabies in Dioscorides and other early medical works; it must have been a relatively common and very scary danger. 

sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima
Sweet alyssum's scientific name was Alyssum maritima until, more than fifty years ago, botanical revision moved it to the genus Lobularia. Some places the common name is alison, rather than alyssum.

Sweet alyssum does not appear in modern or traditional herbal medicine books. I think it is more likely that it was known to herbal writers but not potent enough to include, rather than that they had never seen it. Discussions of sweet alyssum on the internet report that, in Spain, it is used as an antiscorbutic and diuretic, and in treating gonorrhea, citing a source I do not have available. That is the only specific use I have seen, except for people passing on old stories of treating rabies. Plants for a Future rates sweet alyssum as 1 out of 5 as a medicine.

sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima
sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima

Cunningham in his Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs does include it, saying it moderates anger if placed on the hand or body of the angry person. Another traditional use was to hang it around your neck in an amulet to counter any charms that may have been cast on you and in the house to destroy any glamours (enchantments.)

Sweet alyssum is edible, although it doesn't appear on many edible plant lists. Perhaps that is because there are a lot of tastier plants. Plants for a Future gives it a 1 out of 5 as a food. The flowers reportedly have a spicy taste--mustard family, after all--and work best as a garnish or a minor ingredient in a complex salad.

sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima
sweet alyssum as bedding plant in San Diego

Companion-planting sites recommend sweet alyssum for protecting vegetables. The small flowers  attract and provide nectar to a variety of tiny insects, including solitary wasps and hoverflies, predators that prey upon tiny caterpillars, aphids, and other small but destructive garden pests. Thus having sweet alyssum aids vegetables, for example, potatoes, by keeping predator numbers high. Furthermore, sweet alyssum forms dense stands, which can suppress weeds. And it is pretty.

Of course there is a down-side. Sweet alyssum has escaped in some areas of the United States. The Invasive Plant Atlas lists it, and shows it as having escaped in scattered counties in western and northern U.S., especially in California. It does not seem to be an important weed, but it is European and acting like an invasive species, so you can find it as a plant to replace on "grow these natives instead of invasives" lists (link).  

sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima
sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima

Easy to grow, pretty but slightly invasive, little sweet alyssum.

Comments and corrections are welcome.


Cunningham, S. 1993. Cunningham's Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs. Llewellyn Publishing, St. Paul, MN. Native plant alternatives to sweet alyssum. link Accessed 4/27/21
Gunther, R. T. editor. 1933. The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides. Originally 64 AD.Belknap Press, Harvard.
Invasive Plant Atlas. Sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima (L.) Desv. link Accessed 4/27/21.
The Plant-Based Podcast. Five edible flowers you can grow at home and how to use them link Accessed 4/27/21
Plants for a Future. Lobularia maritima (L.) Desv. link Accessed 4/30/21.

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist
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