Dear Readers, what a week it’s been! Between getting the pond cleaned, and preparing for the visit of the auditors next week I have hardly had a minute to breathe. On Saturday we were helping our aged auntie to clear out her house in Somerset – she is 92 years old and moved into a care home last year, but still wants to go through her possessions herself, as is her prerogative. Nonetheless, I was delighted to find the hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) in flower on top of a wall in Muswell Hill – for me it has always been a harbinger of spring, even though it has tiny flowers only a few millimetres long. I love those globular leaves (I’m sure that’s not the correct botanical term), and the way that the plant pops up on top of walls or in the few grains of soil at the edge of the pavement. I took a few photos and headed home rejoicing.
Until, that is, that I realised that I’d already written about hairy bittercress back in 2016. Alack! I have no time to find a new weed. I could attempt to pull the wool over your eyes and tell you that this is in fact wavy bittercress (Cardamine flexuosa), but to be sure I would have had to dissect the flower to see if it had 6 stamens (wavy) or 4 stamens (hairy) and I didn’t do that. So, in reprise, here are a few of the things that I love about bittercress, regardless of its hirsuteness or degree of undulation.
Firstly, like many other crucifers (for although small this is indeed a cabbage), the bittercress has seeds which can be ‘fired’ with a touch – the scientific name for this is ‘explosive dehiscence’, which delighted me in 2016 and still delights me four years later. Apparently, the seeds can be fired up to 16 feet, and bittercress has even been observed using its ballistic ability to wallop approaching caterpillars, although whether this is coincidence or intention I would not like to say. When the auditors have finally left I am going to amuse myself by giving every other bittercress that I meet a gentle flick, just in case the seeds are ripe. I suspect that this method of seed distribution helps a little annual plant to give its offspring their best start in life, away from the shade and resource requirements of the parent. I suspect that many human parents might wish that they could do the same.
Secondly, bittercress is one of the Anglo-Saxon’s Nine Herbs Charm, which was a treatment for poisoning and for infection. The charm included mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), cockspur grass (or, according to some commentators, betony), bittercress, plantain, mayweed, nettle, crab-apple, thyme and fennel. The charm is recorded in an Anglo-Saxon medical collection called the Lacnunga, and the manuscript is preserved at the British Library – you can actually see it, and turn the pages, here. What a treat! According to that source of all wisdom, Wikipedia:
At the end of the charm, prose instructions are given to take the above-mentioned herbs, crush them to dust, and to mix them with old soap and apple juice. Further instructions are given to make a paste from water and ashes, boil fennel into the paste, bathe it with beaten egg – both before and after the prepared salve is applied.
Further, the charm directs the reader to sing the charm three times over each of the herbs as well as the apple before they are prepared, into the mouth of the wounded, both of their ears, and over the wound itself prior to the application of the salve.
I love that our commonest ‘herbs’ were included in the charm; people were familiar with them and their properties, and their ubiquity was no obstacle to their usefulness. It gives me heart that foraging for personal use is coming back, though I fear that, where our ancestors were attuned to what was available when, and how much of a certain plant it was appropriate to take, we may not necessarily all have those skills. Still, anything that makes us take notice of the plants and animals around us, and helps us to recognise and respect them is surely a step in the right direction.
Some foragers say that bittercress can be used a salad ingredient or a pot herb but, as I mentioned in my original post, it should be gathered from an unpolluted source. Plus, the leaves are so tiny that I can’t help wondering if it’s worth all the effort. If you are forever making bittercress pesto, do let me know! I was very happy to find this poem from the Incredible Edibles Todmorden site, which makes me think that maybe there is more to bittercress as a food ingredient than I figured. For those of you who don’t know about Incredible Edibles, it is a wonderful project in Yorkshire, which started with the idea of using public space in the town to grow fruit and vegetables for everyone to use. The naysayers were convinced that a few folk would do all the growing, and a few lazy folk would do all the eating, but instead it has been an extraordinarily successful project which has brought people together, provided fresh food for folk who would not otherwise have been able to afford it, and taught a whole range of gardening and cooking courses. It is positively heartwarming. Here is a link to the project site, and here is the poem about bittercress by Judy Kendall:
‘seeds like a weed
tastes nearly like watercress, like rocket
nutty peppery bittercress‘
And finally, a poem. This is not directly about bittercress, but it sums up how I feel about ‘weeds’,their stoicism and their secret power. For ‘God’ I would put ‘hope’ or ‘nature’ or ‘spirit’, but maybe, in the best of all worlds, they all come to the same thing.
Weeds by Philip Pulfrey
I learn more about God
From weeds than from roses;
Through the smallest chink of hope
In the absolute of concrete.
Small seeds secreted
Under man’s designings;
Roads and city plans,
The humourless utopias
Of arid dreams.
It seems God smiles:
A head of gold
So delicate yet strength enough
To bring temples to their knees In time.
What is left of Greece Is the work of weeds:
A humble persistence
Of unobserved beauty
The force of life enduring
The follies of men.