Hairy Bittercress – Identification, edibility and distribution

Hairy Bittercress – Cardamine Hirsuta

hairy bittercress

  • Edibility – 4
  • Identification – 3 – Adhering to classic brassicaceae motif of cruciferous (cross-shaped) white flowers and rosettes of leaf stalks with a paired leaflets and a larger terminal lobe.
  • Distribution – 5 – Very common, everywhere.
  • Season – all year, though at its best March – August. This is a quick-growing annual, or even quicker reproducing plant, often seeding several generations per year.
  • Habitat – Exposed/disturbed earth – in gardens, field edges, flower beds, even window boxes

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These delicate and beautiful little “weeds” (gardeners loathe them) are a very tasty addition to any salad, though they lose their charm when cooked. They have overtones of rocket and watercress and come in lovely little garnish sized rosettes. Great in a roast beef sandwich or crab salad, or to spice up any salad. Garden pest to some, and with a somewhat unappetising name (it isn’t very hairy or bitter), it did manage to make it onto the queen’s plate as an integral part of the winning main course in “Great British Menu” a couple of years ago. I’ve noticed it getting a bit of a makeover on some menus, being referred to as “land cress”.

hairy bittercress

hairy bittercress

Hairy bittercress can appear in window boxes of apparently pristine soil almost magically. The key to their success is their ability to ping their tiny seeds from their casings (seliques). Seeds can then lay dormant for many years until their moment in the sun presents itself.

bittercress bunch4

The cardamines are a sub-family of the brassicaceae, or mustard family of plants. Within clan cardamine there is a lovely hierarchy of similarly flavoured relations. In roughly ascending (they all vary according to stage of growth) order of pepperiness they are:

  • Hairy bittercress (c.hirsuita)
  • Wood wavy cress (c.flexuosa), distinguished by its preference for shade and wavy leaflets
  • Greater cuckoo flower (c.raphanifolia)lager with pink flowers on stream edges and swamps
  • Cuckoo flower, aka Lady Smock (c. pratensis), in wet meadows, with pink or white flowers, ladder-like carline leaves and a noticeable mustard kick.
  • Large cress (c.amara), with white flowers and a liking for ditches and slow flowing water. This pushes the mustard flavour into almost wasabi, or at least scurvy grass territory.

As gastro-botanists (as opposed to those strange, flavourless botanists), we needn’t distinguish between these  – they are all good eating. But it is fun to ID them by taste, once you’ve tuned into the basic leaf structure of the family.

My favourite swamp boasts all five of these varieties, as well as their near relation true watercress, and I love taking my guided walks there and working our way up the mustard hierarchy. Sometime we go to the coast after and continue our ascent through sea radish, scurvy grass, and finishing at the palatte-rippingly piquant sea rocket. Which you’ll probably only taste once.

cuckoo flower leaf+bloom

Lady’s smock

Wood wavy cress

Wood wavy cress

Large cress, winter

Large cress, winter

sea rocket - you've been warned!

sea rocket – you’ve been warned!

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