Slightly hairy and not particularly bitter

28th January 2013

Spotted this little cluster of Hairy Bittercress Cardamine hirsuta coming through at the base of a wall. This has to be one of my favourite edible wild plants, partly because you can find it all year round, it is amazingly common and it really packs a peppery punch which comes as a real shock to many people. The taste is similar to rocket and watercress and is milder in winter becoming much more peppery when it comes into flower. Also in summer it can become a bit tough and dusty.

Hairy Bittercress Cardamine hirsuta

It is easily recognisable. It forms basal rosettes with pinnate leaves. It has rounded, angled leaflets arranged in pairs on each leaf stem with a larger terminal leaflet at the end. The upper surface of the leaflets have short hairs on their upper surface which gives the plant its name. Later in the year it puts up a flower spike, which is normally straight. The leaves on the flower stem are much narrower. The flowers are white and very small and when it has finished flowering there will be the tiny elongated seed pods.

These seed pods when ripe will burst open explelling the tiny seeds considerable distances in all directions. They will then sit in the soil until they are exposed by weeding etc. when they germinate rapidly, it can produce 500 seeds in a few weeks…..these characteristics do not make it a popular plant with gardeners. The best place to look for them is on bare soil and disturbed ground, as soon as other plants get a foothold the Bittercress will be out competed.

The spicy, peppery flavour of Hairy Bittercress makes a tasty addition to any salad. Like rocket and watercress (to which it is related) it goes well with rich tasting flavours such as game and smoked meats and it cuts through fatty dishes well. Perfect with smoked salmon for instance. It can be substituted for rocket in Italian style salads e.g. with bresaola or prosciutto, parmesan shavings, olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

With Prosciutto, Parmesan, Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinegar

If you have lots of it, chop it finely and stir into mashed potato. The flavour is not too dissimilar to mild Horseradish and goes well with beetroot.

To harvest it simply snip off the young leaves with scissors or if you have the land owners permission dig up the whole rosette.

There are a few of other members of the same family which can be used instead of or as well as Hairy Bittercress. Wavy or Wood Bittercress C. flexuosa grows in damp woodlands, by rivers and streams. It is slightly larger with as its name suggests wavy stems. Large Bittercress C. amara is larger still and less hairy with more oval leaves. Narrow-leaved Bittercress C. impatiens is up to 60cm tall with very narrow toothed leaflets and finally Lady’s Smock or Cuckflower C. Pratensis is found in damp woodlands, the terminal leaflet is much larger than the rest of the leaflets and kidney shaped. The flower is normally a very pale rose-pink colour, unlike the other members of the family which all have white flowers. All of the cardamines can be used in the same way.

Kev Palmer

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