How to Identify Hairy Bittercress - Foraging for Wild Edible Greens
Like many common garden weeds, hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) is a tiny, tender annual that you probably don’t notice growing all around you – until you start looking for it.
Sometimes referred to as “garden cress,” “pepper cress,” or “popweed,” this unassuming bitter herb is a member of the Brassicaceae plant family, placing it in the esteemed company of mustards, cabbages, broccoli and the like. That means it’s not only edible, but a delight to the senses as well.
Information on this cool-weather mustard is somewhat sparse, and so I can’t say for sure what its nutritional profile looks like. I would suspect that it’s similar to other Brassicas, but perhaps more concentrated due to its compact size. You could bet on a healthy dose of vitamin C and some essential minerals, no doubt.
If you’ve ever eaten microgreens before, your palette will already be familiar with what you get from hairy bittercress: soft, tender leaves and a sharp, peppery flavor that makes it an excellent garnish or addition to a salad mix.
Where to Find Hairy Bittercress
Bittercress likes damp, recently disturbed and open spaces. These preferences make it very common in gardens, but also in greenhouses and nurseries, which are replete with damp, open soil surfaces for colonizing. Its size and relatively short life cycle make it ideally suited for this kind of infestation.
It’s also one of a handful of weeds you’ll often find growing between cracks in the sidewalk, or in any old clump of neglected dirt, really – it’s not picky.
How to Identify Hairy Bittercress
Bittercress is easy to spot in a patch of weeds or grass. It grows in a compact, basal rosette form – which is to say, its leaves all radiate out from around the base. Each leaf stalk has 5-9 paired leaflets, shaped somewhat like a kidney bean or a ginkgo leaf, with a single terminal leaflet at the end.
Bittercress will begin to send up flower stalks very quickly after becoming established, and if you’re familiar with other Brassicas then you’ll already know to look for.
Flowers are very tiny and white, with four slender petals that form a shape reminiscent of a butterfly. Once pollinated, these flowers form into long, thin seedpods that are dehiscent – when ripe, the slightest touch will cause them to pop open and shoot their numerous seeds off in every direction. This is one reason why they can be so hard to control in gardens and nurseries.
When to Look for Hairy Bittercress
Bittercress usually makes an appearance on the landscape here in the Midwest in late November or December, but often succumbs to hard frosts. It will awaken from its winter slumber around the same time as its esteemed edible colleague chickweed, which is usually sometime in February or March.
Like chickweed, it will be one of the first weeds of the year to pop up in garden beds and disturbed or patchy soil, and a single plant can spawn dozens of progeny and rapidly dominate the space it occupies before high summer temperatures cause it to mellow out until fall.
Once the temperature drops in autumn and other larger plants have died back, bittercress will germinate once again from seeds dropped in the spring and cycle through a few more generations before succumbing to the cold of winter.
How to Harvest Hairy Bittercress
Bittercress is exceptionally easy to harvest: just yank it right out of the ground! You could also pull back the leaves and cut it right underneath the base, but this generally isn’t necessary.
Keep in mind that if you want to make it disappear from wherever you’re harvesting it, you’ll have to go in with a hand spade or a soil knife to pry out the surprisingly long, deep taproot – otherwise a fresh new rosette will reappear before you know it.
How to Use Hairy Bittercress
All aboveground parts of bittercress are edible, but many people find the flowers and flower stalks to be less palatable than the leaves. You can eat cress right out of the field, but because it tends to sprawl out across the ground, you may want to rinse it off before consuming.
Be mindful to eat it very quickly after harvesting – cress has a tendency to wilt rapidly after being plucked.
Most of the bittercress that I eat goes straight from field to mouth, but it would make a terrific addition to any salad mix. Also consider using it as a garnish for sandwiches and soups – the sharp, peppery flavor pairs well with a tomato slice. I bet it would also be great on top of baked or mashed potatoes.
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By the way...
If you're looking for more help with wild plant identification, and you're wondering how to tie foraging into your local, seasonal diet, why not join us over in the Farm and Forage Challenge group on Facebook? You'll be able to connect with folks just like you and me all over the world who are eating seasonally from the landscapes that surround them. I hope to see you there!