Cardamine hirsuta: a weedy make-over for tasty salads

Recently harvested Cardamine hirsuta

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.

Cardamine hirsuta growing with Ficaria verna and other weeds on a woodland bank

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.

A simple hairy bittercress salad

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.

Salad number 2, more sophisticated but still zingy

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!

24 thoughts on “Cardamine hirsuta: a weedy make-over for tasty salads

    1. I was also a bit hesitant at first, but now am a convert. I wash it (best soaked in a bowl to allow any dirt to sink to the bottom) and yes just chop off the roots. Give it a try, you’ve basically got a free supply of mini watercress 😀

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    1. Yes exactly if people only knew of the bounty all around them, am enjoying rediscovering these old foods – and who knows, like in Ukraine, you can have civilisation and full supermarkets one minute, and catastrophe the next…in which case knowledge like this could be a lifesaver.

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  1. I must go and search the garden – I’m bound to have it somewhere! I’m not the most enthusiastic weeder – I tend to just let everything get on with it. Apart from the sycamore helicopter seeds which are currently overrunning my raised beds! They are getting pulled sharpish! Would be great if you could eat them!! Must get a copy of that RHS book – looks fascinating.

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    1. Funnily enough sycamore does feature in the book! He makes a good case for it as it supports a lot of insects and aphids – essential for the rest of the food chain. And he doesn’t get too hot under the collar about it not being ‘native’, as climate change means we’ll need to be more open to other species that do well in the new reality. It’s an interesting read, highly recommended!

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      1. My neighbour has one on the boundary between our gardens so I have the seedlings everywhere. I think I’ll continue getting rid of them though – we don’t need two sycamores that close together! Good to know it can be useful though. Have ordered the book – should be here tomorrow. Xx

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  2. Thanks Sel, now I know the name of the maddening weed that pings its seeds at me if I don’t get it out quickly enough. Your recipes sound and look delicious but the actual plants are quite small so I imagine you need a lot of them to get a reasonable amount in your salads. Lovely sunshine today so I’ll try and “weed” a few out for lunch.

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    1. Yes true you need a good handful but as they are quite strong I would say mix them with milder lettuce leaves if you want a big salad. In the wild you tend to find loads together but that’s probably not what you want in the garden 😉

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  3. You have given me the needed impulse to try this. The salads look great. I have never really hated as much as the pernicious perennials. I am thinking of lesser Celandine at the moment, it grows little bulbs so rapidly it is impossible to control. Now if you have a recipe for those…Amelia

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  4. I knew it was edible but I would never have thought of adding them to a salad… It’s true that when you pull them up, there is a particular smell reminiscent of certain herbs. I have tons of them here so I will follow your advice!

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