This week's wild edible is Hairy Bittercress!
This tiny wild edible plant is among some the first wild edible greens to start showing their heads at the very end of winter and early spring. It may also be known as pepperweed, land cress, popping cress, and spring cress. It’s a very flavorful and abundant wild edible that tends to grow in patches or groups and is part of the mustard family.
If you are foraging and not surviving, when you come across only a single plant, try to limit the amount of leaves you take from this plant so it survives and has a chance to reproduce more plants for future harvests.
What it looks like.
This wild edible grows in a rosette pattern with each leaf stalk reaching up to 4” long. When looking very closely at this tiny plant you will notice that some of the leaves have very small and sparse tiny white hairs growing on then (hence the name). Each of the stalks can have anywhere from 5 to 9 paired leaflets and will usually have one large leaflet at the end of the stalk that tends to be larger than the rest.
From the center of the rosette a flower stalk will eventually emerge. This stalk can reach up to 10” and will adorn a small white flower with 4 petals. These flowers appear right around the same time the seed pods start to show up. The seed pods or capsules are very tiny and only grow about ½” to 1” long. The seed capsules are usually a deep olive green or lighter “lettuce” type green, but they can start to turn a reddish brown color at the tip of the seedpods. It’s not uncommon for several more flower stalks to grow off the main stem, each with its own white flower and multiple seedpods. Be careful though. When the plants begin to ripen and seedpods are mature they tend to “explode”. The Pods will quite literally erupt, flinging seeds everywhere. So you may want to wear glasses or look away when harvesting. Don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt, you just don’t want them in your eyes!!
When and where to find it.
As stated earlier, this plant is one of the first and most flavorful wild edible greens to appear in early spring and possibly even very late winter (when it warms up a tad) and also grows all over North America quite abundantly. It will usually stay available through spring all the way until the end of fall and early winter, or at least until severe frosts occur.
This little plant loves moist soil and cool shade. Keep an eye out for it on the shaded side of larger structures especially where the soil stays moist a lot of the time but isn’t water logged. Good places to look are on the shaded part of buildings or houses (the images from this post actually came from my backyard right next to my barn), along drainage ditches, or along season streams. Once the season progresses you can find Bittercress in open fields, and many other places. Just keep an eye out for the “exploding” pods when walking in a field from about April to the end of summer.
All tender parts of this plant that are above ground are edible. The leaves, stems (although they can be a bit tough), flowers, and even seedpods (some find the texture of the seedpods to be unappetizing though).
Considering it is part of the mustard family, it makes sense that this plant would have a flavor very similar to wild mustard. It is best used fresh as garnish, in salads, as seasoning, even on sandwiches where you would use normal mustard. Cooking this plant tends to kill the flavor and make it very bland so try to eat fresh when you can. It can also be used to make green smoothies, but this will enhance the flavor quite a bit so use sparingly. Or you can always just pick and eat fresh off the plant (be sure to rinse thoroughly with clean water if in a questionable area).
Historically this plant is said to have a few medicinal properties. Some of those may include: treating headaches and colds, increasing appetites, boost immunity, and even help in cancer prevention.
**Warnings, Disclaimers, and Precautions**
Please be sure to read ALL of this section!!
**Avoid harvesting any part of this plant when it is in water. It could potentially pick up harmful microbes.
**When identifying plants you are unfamiliar with, please use as multiple references, as well as help from experts when available. Unless you are 110% sure what a plant is, it is best to avoid it completely.
**If you plan on using any plants for medicinal uses, consult a healthcare professional, as well as botanist familiar in the field of wild plants. And as always, use as many references and expert opinions as possible when identifying a plant.
**Be sure to avoid any plants growing near roads, around chemicals, other poisonous plants, or polluted/contaminated water.
**As always, be sure to use the Universal Edibility Test to ensure the plant is the correct plant and to help identify any unknown allergies you may have.