Hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) is a really unfortunate name for a wonderfully tasty edible weed. Bittercress is a mustard, so its bitterness is more spicy-hot than bitter, though it’s not nearly as hot as some other members of the Brassicaceae family.
The “hairy” in its name is derived from the tiny “hairs” on its leaves and stems. The hairs are more noticeable on young bittercress, but you still have to look pretty hard, like with a loupe or magnifying glass, to see them. A more appropriate name would be Not-so-hairy and pleasantly-mild spicycress.
Bittercress is one of the smaller wild mustards with compound leaves that consist of tiny leaflets growing pinnately along leaf stalks that rarely reach more than six inches or so, a single leaflet on the tip. Its leaves emanate from a basal rosette which is more noticeable on younger plants before the larger leaves obscure its base.
Hairy bittercress is typically considered a winter annual – it germinates in the fall and makes seeds and flowers in the spring. In warmer climates, though, it may flower much earlier. I started noticing buds this year in early February in eastern North Carolina, and just a few weeks later, the plants were covered in seedpods.
The tiny 2 mm white flowers of hairy bittercress begin as buds with four sepals growing on a single, smooth stalk in the middle of the plant’s basal rosette. The flower stalks may be green or red. The leaves that grow from the flower stalk are shaped differently than the main plant’s leaflets, being more narrow and long.
The buds eventually develop into flowers consisting of four white petals in the shape of a cross, or a crucifix – a trait that gave bittercress’s family the former name of Cruciferae (now Brassicaceae) and the reason plants in this family are called “cruciferous.”
A single flower forms at the end of the flower stalk as bittercress first blooms. When the flower is finished, the petals fall away leaving green seed pods, or siliques. As the seed develops, the flower stalk will continue to grow, forming new flowers arranged alternately, newer flowers developing toward the bottom of the stalk.
The seed pods eventually turn brown and dry…at first glance, a colony of bittercress at the seed pod stage appears to be eaten to the ground, the dry siliques reminiscent of brown stalks chewed by deer or rabbits.
As the siliques continue to dry, they eventually “explode” like touch-me-nots, releasing their seeds up to three feet or so.
Bittercress is a weed that really thrives in cooler weather and dies back in late spring or summer as temperatures climb, much like chickweed, which can often be found growing nearby.
During really cold weather, bittercress will remain dormant. In our region, it seems to do well throughout the fall and winter and into early spring. And since it occurs in the colder months, its vibrant green leaves are easy to see against the backdrop of brown and gray.
It loves wettish, disturbed soil – the kind that is common in yards and gardens. In fact, bittercress, like so many edible weeds, is a bane to gardeners who aren’t familiar with its gourmet micro-green characteristics.
Like all mustards, bittercress is an excellent natural source of vitamin C. It’s good raw or cooked and makes a delicious garnish or salad ingredient.
We have a beautiful volunteer crop of Hairy bittercress just downhill from our hose spigot, where it thrives on the steady supply of moisture. It’s really convenient to step outside and pick a few tender sprigs when we want to add a little bite to our salad.
Its flavor profile is similar to watercress but bittercress is more readily available. And like watercress or any wild edibles that grow in or near water, avoid harvesting in areas where the water may be contaminated with toxic chemicals or pathogens.
Harvest bittercress by pulling the whole plant (when it won’t detrimentally affect the colony) or by cutting off the leaf stalks, avoiding the tough flower stalks and seedpods. The leaves wilt quickly so harvest only when you’re ready to use.