The blog party for May is being hosted by Darcey at Gaias Gifts. This month’s topic is “Spring Greens”!
My absolute favorite spring green (so far… I’m sure there are others I haven’t discovered yet) is Bittercress (Cardamine spp). I found this little beauty last fall growing in my yard. I’m not sure what made me notice it, but I remember being intrigued right away. The intrigue soon turned into an adventure of “let’s identify this plant!”
First, the taste
I started the identification process by tasting a small leaf. Since I had no idea what kind of plant it was, I had no intentions of swallowing it just then, just tasting it and then spitting it out.
When you first chew, it tastes garlicky, then as you hold it in your mouth you slowly start to feel peppery heat that continues to rise in intensity for about 15 seconds, then the heat subsides and leaves the absolute best garlic-pepper aftertaste lingering for a long time. Mmmmmm!
With that first taste, from somewhere in the depths of my brain out came the word Brassica. I had to go look it up, though, as I couldn’t quite remember what it meant, even though I knew it was one of the common plant families. I must have read about Brassica in one of my botany books and retained the sense of it, if not a full blown definition. For those of you who haven’t learned it yet, Brassica is a subdivision of the Brassicaceae family, which is the latin name for the Mustard family.
As my books reminded me, all of the Mustard family are edible. Yippee! I definitely wanted to eat some of this tasty little plant. But first I had to make sure it was indeed a Mustard before I would think about adding it to a meal. I felt intuitively that it was good for food, but as a beginner I didn’t feel confident enough to go on my gut feeling alone.
Next, observe carefully
It wasn’t in flower at that time, in the middle of Fall, so identification was going to be a bit difficult. If it had been in flower, I would have been looking to see if it they had 4 petals and 6 stamens, 2 short and 4 tall (identifying characteristics of Mustard family flowers, from Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification by Thomas Elpel).
But alas, no flowers, so I had to look for other identifiers. I noticed carefully it’s physical characteristics and where it liked to grow. Below is what it looked like in the Fall when I found it. Notice the leaves are opposite and roundish along the stem. You may not be able to see in these photos, but the stems grow in a whorl from a central point. The leaves also have little hairs on them, easily felt with the tongue when tasting.
Bittercress photo 2 here
Finally, research it
I needed to start with some names of possibilities that I could then plug into Google and also look up in the indexes of my books. I did a general search for Brassica, but that was too broad to narrow down. To get some ideas, I posted my photos to one of the herbal forums I frequent and asked my online friends what they thought it was. I got lots of different suggestions, but the one that seemed closest when I looked it up was “Cuckoo Flower” (common name for the latin Cardamine pratensis), which was also a Brassica. It was a bit difficult at first to find any online photos of the Cuckoo that was even close in appearance to my specimen, because it looks quite different when it is flowering in the Spring than it does in the Fall with just leaves, and most of the pics I found were of the Spring flowering plant.
I determined after a lot looking and comparing different pictures that my little plant was definitely a Cardamine, but probably not the Cuckoo. The information on the Cuckoo did, however, lead me to information on some of the other species in the Cardamine genus. I determined from online photos that my plant was Cardamine hirsuta (hairy bittercress).
Below is a Spring pic of Cardamine hirsuta (white flowers) nestled around the Henbit (purple flowers). Notice how the leaves on the flower stalk are narrow and pointy and darker in color. You can’t see it in this photo, but the leaves nearer the ground are still similar to the way it looks in the Fall photo above.
henbit.jpg photo here
How to eat Bittercress
So… plant identified safe to eat, now what to do with it? Well… it’s super yummy on sandwiches. It also ads a zesty kick to Chickweed pesto, which I think by itself tends to taste a little bland. And of course, it adds tons of flavor to a fresh wild greens salad. I haven’t tried it cooked yet, but I bet it would be delicious that way too. You can eat the entire plant, leaves, stems, flowers, seeds… the whole thing tastes great. The flowers and seeds are more peppery and spicy; the green leaves more garlicky, but still peppery. I think this is the most savory wild green I’ve had so far.
Depending on where you live, you may have some nearby right outside your door. Why not go take a look? Go on now… and let me know if you find any!