I remember first becoming aware of the diminutive little weed, Cardamine hirsuta, on another gardening blogger’s post around this time last year. It was part of his gardening to do list: this enthusiastic ephemeral needs to be weeded out quickly, he said, before it sets seed and takes over your garden. Being an ephemeral, it doesn’t waste its time, growing, flowering and then dispersing its seeds in an explosion of its seed pods, that sends its babies far and wide in your borders, all in a matter of months. When you realise that each small 10cm rosette of a plant can produce up to 1,000 seeds, you can appreciate how quickly it can take over.
I realised that Cardamine hirsuta was growing happily in cracks in my patio, and also on my neighbour’s side of the front mesh fence, which means that it’s now on my side too – weeds don’t take much notice of neighbourly barriers, do they? I duly weeded it out, but it’s a survivor, and it’s back again this spring and growing on strongly.
But it’s had a make-over, at least in my mind, thanks in part to this wonderful little book that’s come into my possession: Weeds: the beauty and uses of 50 vagabond plants, published by the RHS in 2021 and written with good humour and wit by Gareth Richards. As well as lovely botanical illustrations, it contains bite-size but fascinating facts about some of our most maligned weeds.
It turns out that if you have this little plant in your garden, you essentially have a free crop of delicious peppery cress to add to your salads. It’s common name is Hairy bittercress, but don’t be alarmed, it’s not especially hairy (the hairs are tiny) and it’s not bitter. Hairy bittercress and watercress are related, both members of the cabbage family (Brassicaceae), along with rocket, mustard, wasabi…a punchy lot.
I first tried it out in a simple salad of tomatoes and red onion with a lemon and olive oil dressing, and it really perked it up, giving a fresh, zingy flavour.
Then, having weeded most of it out of my garden, I went further afield, coming across it growing on a steep bank in protected parkland near the forest (as with all foraging, it’s best if you find a spot away from traffic pollution and unlikely to have been peed on by dogs, farm animals etc.). I’d just been to the shops and bought some feta cheese and chickpeas, and was taking a scenic detour via the forest, so this was a bonus addition to my next salad. I added some agave syrup as a sweetner (to compliment the peppery bittercress) and it was delicious.
You’re not just making use of an annoying weed by eating it, you’re also giving yourself a great health boost. Cardamine hirsuta is high in substances called glucosinolates, which are reputed to have anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties. It’s also packed with vitamin C, and contains useful minerals like calcium too. I found a source that says that the Saxons appreciated this plant, crediting it with the ability to drive out venom and relieve pain.
This plant’s make-over is so complete in my mind now that I find myself eagerly looking for seedlings in my garden that might grow and give me another free salad crop. How’s that for attitudinal change?! I’m not saying that I’m going to give it free reign but if we harvest it at the right moment, like we already do with many more traditional veg like carrots, parsnips, lettuce etc. then I think this weed deserves a second chance!