Wednesday Weed – Danish Scurvygrass

Danish Scurvygrass (Cochlearia danica)

Dear Readers, I do love finding a ‘proper’ new weed. Danish scurvygrass (Cochlearia danica) is a member of the cabbage family, and used to be found at the seaside, scattered on rocky shores or dangling from cliffs. However, since the 1980’s it has spread along roads that are salted during icy periods, and so it has popped up in the cemetery, right next to where the traffic roars along the North Circular Road. Salt spells the end of the game for most plants, but where they are already adapted to briny coastal conditions they have a great advantage: they can grow where not much else will. And I just learned that the name for a plant or animal that enjoys salty conditions is a halophile, so that’s another new word.

The speed of the traffic wafts the seeds along the road and Danish scurvygrass can often be spotted under the crash barriers in the central reservation of a motorway, and for a view of the plant in all its roadside glory, have a look here.In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey reports how the plant seems to be spreading along main roads at a rate of about 10 to 15 miles per year.

In March and April, its profusion of low-growing, small white flowers can look like a layer of hoar-frost on the edge of the central reservation’

The name of the plant might make you think that it had been brought over by the Vikings but in fact this is a native plant, although Scandinavians might well have chewed on a handful during their voyages because it is very high in Vitamin C. The leaves are tiny though, so you’d need to pick quite a lot to stop your fingernails from dropping out. Pliny the Elder(23-79 A.D) first described a disease that sounds a lot like scurvy and mentioned that there was a Herba Britannica that could cure it. In 1662, the Rev. George Moore suffered so much from scurvy that he devoted himself to the plants that could cure it, publishing Cochlearia curiosa: or the curiosities of scurvygrass ‘ in 1676. There are various species of scurvy grass in the UK, and common scurvygrass (Cochlearia officinalis) was the one most commonly used medicinally. This species is a real coastal plant, though it is also taking to the (salted) roads in the South West.

Common scurvygrass (Cochlearia officinalis) on Bear Island in Norway, with Guillemots

What is astonishing is that although the cure for scurvy is fruit and vegetables, this was forgotten over and over again during the history of mankind – in fact it took until 1747 before James Lind, a naval surgeon on HMS Salisbury, conducted trials of different kinds of foods to see which actually worked, concluding that citrus fruits were the best at preventing the disease. Sadly he was ignored, and during the 18th century more sailors died of scurvy than from enemy action. These days scurvy can still be found, even in the UK, particularly amongst those with alcoholism, mental illness or who are suffering generally from malnutrition. In the world as a whole it is a disease of the most desperate, and can frequently be found in refugee camps.

The leaves of Danish scurvygrass are said to taste like horseradish, with a mustardy, peppery flavour, and have featured in the dishes of Rene Redzepi, formerly owner of Noma, voted the world’s best restaurant on multiple occasions. Redzepi forages for food in his native Denmark, so it’s no surprise that Danish scurvygrass should crop up as an ingredient. The buds can also be eaten, apparently, by those who don’t mind their ‘explosive’ taste. As someone who accidentally ate a chunk of wasabi paste the other day and spent ten minutes with their nose on fire and their eyes watering, I think I’ll pass, but let me know how you get on. Several sites describe the plant as ‘an acquired taste’ and having a ‘punch in the face flavour’, and in fact one site actually mentions that it can be used in place of wasabi, or in pesto. However, for sheer fun have a look at this clip from The Social, a Scottish TV show, where you can find out how to incorporate scurvygrass into your bangers and mash. And in case you still have a whole road-side of scurvy grass to use up, here’s a recipe for scurvy grass ale which also incorporates senna pods, surely not a good idea.

The flowers are said to have a sweet smell, at least on South Uist where the plant grows on the cliffs.

And finally, a poem. John Clare had such an understanding of the countryside in which he roamed, and I especially love his attention to the small, unnoticed flowers of hedgerow and field. This poem, by Susan Kinsolving, seems to me to sum up the tragedy of the enclosure of England, and the how the world was changed. It won an Individual award from the Poetry Society of America in 2009, and well-deserved too.

Susan Kinsolving

PARLIAMENT PASSES THE INCLOSING LANDS ACT, 1809

The open-field system would end. Every acre was enumerated
in a way John Clare could not comprehend. Why should footpaths
have fences, streams be made straight, why fell trees, wall a field
and lock it with a gate? No longer could he drink from Eastwell
spring;
the bubbling water was penned by scaffolding. No Trespassing

at every turn, posted over scurvy-grass, loosestrife, vetch,
clover, and fern. Clare doffed his cap and wept for his right to
roam;
in chicory, thistle, briony and buttercup, he’d always been at
home.
Or coming upon a gypsy camp (fires and tambourines!) he’d
share
his fleabane, borage, parsley, some beans. Once again the
labouring-class

had lost to the well-to-do, those new proprietors of blackberry,
hemp-
nettle, toadflax, and meadow rue. Clare questioned his sanity,
fearing
a familiar hell, but tramped on to say his farewell to mallow,
teasel,
oxlip, and pimpernel. He knew this ramble was one of his last;
every
field, farm, and forest would be enclosed. The open world was
past.

 

6 thoughts on “Wednesday Weed – Danish Scurvygrass

  1. FEARN

    Aaarrggh another white crucifer! Your pictures are full of different shaped leaves – and a cheeky red deadnettle in flower . Thank goodness the Linnean name gives the clue as to which leaves belong to the Danish interloper: cochlearia – from the Greek for spoon. (And here was me thinking it was Latin for ear!)

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  2. Alittlebitoutoffocus

    What a coincidence! I took a photo of a very similar flower on my bike ride the other day but, like the other 2 which I did post, I had no idea what it was, so I left it out. It was in amongst or near some dead-nettle too (which I also left out).

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