Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, this is one of those plants that is so small and inconspicuous that it often goes unnoticed. Yet, at the moment, it is coming into flower at the bottom of every other wall around here in East Finchley. It has popped up in a pot of last year’s hyacinths that I left in the garden too. But until I did a little bit of research I didn’t even know its name, and until I paid it some attention I thought it was shepherd’s purse. Silly me.
Hairy bittercress is a member of the cabbage family, or Brassiceae, and I have been told that it can be used in the same way as mustard-and-cress. Unfortunately, every plant that I have seen locally grows in the splash-zone of the neighbourhood’s numerous dogs, so I haven’t tasted it to find out. The seed pods are said to explode when touched (again, none of the ones that I’ve seen have been so obliging, but then they probably aren’t ripe yet). However, the way that the seedpods send the seeds cascading all over the place has given rise to several of the plant’s other common names, such as flickweed and shotweed. I am delighted to tell you that the technical name for this process is ‘explosive dehiscence’, which is such a wonderful phrase that I shall be seeking ways to slip it into ordinary conversation.
Hairy bittercress is a native plant, and, under its Old English name of stune, is one of the herbs used in the Anglo-Saxon Nine Herbs Charm, which was used as a treatment for poisoning and infection. However, the plant is a keen traveller (often hiding away in imported garden plants) and has made itself known in North America. Here, the flowers are an early nectar source for the spring azure butterfly (Celastrina ladon) and the falcate orange-tip (Anthrocharis midea).I wondered a little about why the plant was called the Hairy Bittercress, when it looked remarkably glabrous to me. It is said to be hairy at the point where the leaves join the stem, but as neither of my two pairs of glasses seem to enable me to see this kind of detail, I must take my hand lens next time I’m plant hunting. If you are trying to distinguish this plant from its close relative the wavy bittercress (Cardamine flexuosa) you will need to work out whether the plant has six stamen (in which case it’s Hairy) or four, which is diagnostic for Wavy. I cannot tell you how happy it makes me to get a precise identification for a plant. It’s truly one of life’s little pleasures, though flora have a way of hybridizing and otherwise being unruly which makes it much trickier than you would think. Even at the level of tiny plants subsisting in a quarter of an inch of substrate, life is anarchic and unpredictable in a most delicious way.
If you have access to a less polluted supply of hairy bittercress than I do, you can wilt it like spinach (which apparently tames the eponymous bitterness a little), use it in a salad, or turn it into pesto. The Eatweeds website has a recipe for hairy bittercress harissa, for those of us who fancy a bash at North African cooking, and for hairy bittercress and roasted beetroot salad, and I have no doubt that the wonders of the internet will reveal many more uses for this little plant. Its bitterness is said to help with liver detoxification, and in these days of ‘clean eating’ and juice fasts, you could probably do worse than to eat some of your greens in the form of this little chap. My book Flowers of the Field by the Reverend C.A. Johns, which dates to 1913, tells me that the genus name Cardamine comes from the Greek cardio, the heart, and damao, to fortify. Whether this refers to a medical or romantic property of the plant I have no idea, but it has certainly lifted my spirits.
Photo One – By Walter Siegmund – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=854581
Photo Two – By Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren (Falcate Orangetip butterfly) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer