Dear Readers, following my trip to the cemetery on Saturday I decided to find out a bit more about this rather strange plant. It looks rather like a giant shepherd’s purse although the seedheads are different. I was fairly sure that it was a member of the cabbage family, but one that I hadn’t seen before. Fortunately the knowledgeable people over at the Wildflowers of Britain and Ireland Facebook group were able to give a tentative identification – this is most probably Narrow-leaved Pepperwort (Lepidium ruderale). To identify it properly, I need to give the leaves a rub next time I’m in the cemetery – they are said to smell like a combination of horse dung and horseradish. I can’t wait!
The genus of the plant, Lepidium, means ‘small-scale’ in Latin – some authors think that this refers to the use of some species to treat leprosy, which causes scaly skin in its early stages. It might also refer to those tiny round seeds, which definitely have a resemblance to fish scales. However, the leprosy interpretation is supported by the fact that a close relative, dittander (Lepidium latifolium) was used as a treatment for leprous sores, and that stands of this unusual, normally coastal plant, have been found growing in the grounds of 3 hospitals in Kent and nowhere else in the county(Flora Britannica by Richard Mabey, page 153).
The plant has also been used in a tincture to treat impetigo, another skin disease, and it’s said that it can also reduce blood pressure and decrease respiration (though why you’d want people to breathe less I am unsure). Furthermore a close relative of ‘our’ plant, field pepperwort (Lepidium campestre) was said to be an antidote to poison, and was sold under the name of ‘mithridate pepperwort’. And for those of us who are ladies of ‘a certain age’, yet another relative, maca (Lepidium meyenii) develops a huge, bulbous taproot which is said to taste like vegetable caramel, and which is said to be a great treatment for hot flushes. In its native Peru, maca is also used as an aphrodisiac, and there is some evidence that it has a direct influence on the action of hormones such as oestrogen, so maybe this isn’t so unlikely.
As you might expect from the name, pepperworts of all kinds are said to have intensely mustardy, pepper-flavoured leaves, which can be used in salads when picked young. Having read the description of the smell, however, I might leave this one for the hardier folk among us. In fact, the plant is so strongly-flavoured that it can taint the milk of the animals that graze upon it, and furthermore it appears to be herbicide-resistant. Bees love it, however, and there was a tiny hoverfly feeding on this specimen, which you can probably see if you squint.
It seems to me that we owe so much to these nondescript little brassicas, not just because many of them are the ancestors of the cabbages, turnips and radishes that we enjoy today but in their own right. With their peppery flavour they added some much-needed flavour to our ancestor’s diet, and they can be surprisingly attractive to the human eye too: I rather liked the long spikes of flowers and seeds on the pepperwort. As already noted, they can be popular with pollinators, and caterpillars that can get past the mustardy flavour that is meant to deter them can find something tasty to eat.
And so to a poem all about cabbages. I love this! Words actually fail me. See what you think. My mother, too, used to overcook it, and put a spoonful of bicarb into the water, in theory to keep it green.
There was no sex in our village there was only
cabbage. Row upon row of it filling the haggards
on high, straight ridges. This is where babies came from
we were told, in all seriousness. My sister still remembers
being shown the exact head that she was discovered under.
We knew everything about growing the small, limp
plants that needed constant watering. Learned how to protect them
from root fly and caterpillar infestations. Recognized the different varieties,
from January King to Curly Kale, sewn in sequence for year-round cropping.
Instructed that it was never harvested until the hearts were firm and babies
were something only grown-up women found. Of sex
we knew nothing. We all hated it; the dank smell of it cooking
that permeated through the whole house for hours
after it was eaten, the sloppy look of it on the plates,
the run-off staining the spuds and bacon. But it was
good for us so we were made to finish it. Remember
how mother would add a teaspoon of soda to the water
to soften the fibers? Years later, I learnt that this destroys
the flavour, disarms the vitamins. The myth was easy
to believe in a farming community until our hormones and
neighbours’ sons, well educated in animal husbandry,
illuminated the shortcomings in our education.
Oh my sisters,
we are the daughters of cabbages and should celebrate our
cruciferae lineage; tough and sinewy of a strong variety,
adaptable to any climate, winter hardy;
never ones to take
ourselves too seriously: when I think on it,
my sisters, all that green we swallowed.
Photo One by Sten, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Two By Vahe Martirosyan https://www.flickr.com/photos/vahemart/29354035645/in/photolist-Lq4Xq7-KUBFMH-KUBDQM-KUqMKC-KUBBVV-LJv7uH-LyoM5o-KLS6Bs-LHV7yn-LHV77R-LAYZik-LHV6gc-LHV5tk, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54408048