Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Bittercress: A Misnomer

I'm in Arkansas for spring break visiting the inlaws and loving the 70-degree weather down here. This place is a forager's paradise. I'll have more to say about that in future posts, but in the meantime I had a post about eating your weedies queued up minus the photos. Turns out all the shots are safe and sound in my camera...back in Seattle. So without further ado, Plan B.

See that weed at top, growing between the rungs of my ladder in the backyard? It's all over Seattle. Apparently it's all over Fayetteville, Arkansas, too, according to my limited canvassing of this university town in the Ozarks. In fact, various representatives of the genus Cardamine are common across much of North America and the world. And we might consider using that pinch of Latin when we talk about it, even if it makes us feel professorial and a bit much, because the common name is flat out wrong.

Bittercress. Whoever gave it the name bittercress never actually tasted it. According to Arthur Lee Jacobson: "Over 200 years ago, Linnaeus named a related English weed Cardamine amara, meaning bitter. Writers subsequently transferred the inaccurate name Bitter cress to ALL Cardamine species, and it is one of the largest genera in the mustard family."

There are some 200 species of Cardamine. Like many other Brassicas, these little annuals and perennials are high in nutrients and have been used for centuries for medicinal purposes. In my region Cardamine hirsuta is the most common species, although I'm pretty sure the robust one in the photo is a different species, possibly Cardamine flexuosa.

All Cardamines are typically hot and peppery in a pleasant way that brings a simple salad to life. This is a plant to know and enjoy regardless of its misleading common name.


Storm said...

Be glad you missed the snowstorm which went through recently..
Welcome to Akieland..

What sort of environment does the bittercress grow in? I have been educating myself on the wild edibles in the Oauchitas (near the Ozarks), but that one has not come to my attention, so any help would be appreciated.

The henbit is particularly good this year as well for whatever reason..

Langdon Cook said...

Storm - Yeah, our timing was impeccable for once. We missed the big Ozark snowstorm of last week and this week's nasty weather in Seattle. But I fear our luck is running out because it looks like we'll be heading home just before the first flush of Arky morels. Anyway, look for bittercress...er...Cardamine...near human dwellings. My bro-in-law has it growing around his home in Silverdale; it's also in Lake Fayetteville Park. Do you eat pokeweed?

Storm said...

I have not had poke yet, but if I am back in time (I have to travel to help family for a month) I am definitely going to get some this year. I identified it last year, but by the time I had a positive identification, it was too old to harvest safely (from what I understand).

Been looking for morels, or even some locals who can take me around to various 'shroom spots, but no luck so far.. That said I have spotted some puffballs (the remains of them) and though it took me too long to positively identify, a false chicken of the woods which is edible..

I only moved to the area a couple of years ago, so I am still learning about what is available here.

Gotten any squirrel yet?

Mike said...

Wow, Fayetteville!
I just moved here in October, and then we had a baby in November, so I haven't been out foraging much.

What would you say is most prolific here?

Or maybe the better question is, where should I start? I was getting pretty familiar with what grows in southern Michigan, but I'd hate to head out for a walk and miss the easiest plants around here just because they're unfamiliar.

Thanks so much!

KateLaugh said...

Like my Hot Springs grandma always warned, look out for the chiggers!
~Kate (arky gal back in Seattle)

bellevueriver said...

it seems like that weed is available year round in seattle. and Ive noticed in my nibbling that some seem more bitter than others; but I guess that might be due to the season when picked

Chris Bennett said...

The hoary bittercress is pretty much done for here in Alabama. It's in the mustard family. It's one of the prime winter edible greens here. Whether you are in the city or country, you will find it. Some have big leaves, some have small ones. Restaurants here use it as a micro green.

Oh and I got your book as a Christmas present. Loved it!

If you are ever down in the deep south let me know.

Camille said...

mmm. Cardamine. Isn't watercress a member of this same family? I've been seeing a plant that looks like a cross between watercress and bittercress growing out of the cracks of pavement in alleys. It tastes just like watercress but spicier and it has yellow flowers.
PS: I found a gigantic morel today! I'm in Vancouver, BC.

Langdon Cook said...

Mike - I'm no expert on the foraging possibilities in Arkansas but here are a few suggestions: If you're from Michigan you no doubt enjoy a morel mushroom from time to time. Get out there RIGHT NOW for morels. Other local specialties include pokeweed, pawpaw, persimmon, and several species of nut. Plus you've got great panfishin'! Good luck.

Laughblog - I hear that. I got a bad case of poison ivy this trip but no ticks or chiggers, thankfully.

Seth - It does seem to be a year-round option in Seattle, which makes it especially important to those of us in the Northwest. As for taste, you might be eating more than one species--or maybe it's a function of season. I haven't taken tasting notes so I can't say for sure. In any case, I haven't found a Cardamine that I didn't enjoy.

Farmer boy - That's cool that Alabama restaurants use Cardamine as a micro green. I don't think I've seen it on Seattle menus. BTW, I might be in your neck of the woods for a little boar hunting at some point...

Cameal - Yes, both Cardamine and watercress (genus Nasturtium) are brassicas, which includes some of our best tasting and most nutritious vegetables, wild and domestic. Your sidewalk cracker is probably bittercress, which is spicy and reminiscent of watercress. Congrats on the morel! I got goose-egged in Arkansas.

Julia said...

Oh, jeez. That's what that weed is that is growing all over my entire yard. And I can eat it? Even better. I thought it was called turnip weed. Cooked or raw? I guess I'll figure it out! Thanks!