Friday, January 11, 2013

Edible Weeds: Bitter Cress; Winter Cress; Water Cress

A nice thing about the mustard family is that they are all edible and easy to identify by the shape of their flowers: four petals in the shape of a Maltese cross.  The general shape of the plants and their leaves is also typical and not like any toxic plant.  Most wild mustards are hairy and tough.  Cresses are all smooth and tender, and worth going after if you like hot, bitter greens.
Bitter cress can grow and bloom any time of year, though it mainly seeds out around April.  Before it blooms, it is small, 1-4 inches tall, with smooth lobed leaves in a rosette arrangement.  It flowers up to a foot or so high, with small, white flowers of four petals shaped like a Maltese cross. 
It’s a pretty little plant when small, but after it flowers, it is not pretty at all in its habit.  The plants produce seed pods that pop small seeds 3 feet in all directions at the slightest disturbance.  They come up thick and readily, earning it the status of weed in the garden.  Some of the plants are so small that they are easily missed, so it is hard to completely get rid of; it’s apt to come in pots with nursery stock.
Some of my customers like its hot, bitter flavor, similar to water cress.  For them, I let it grow until it flowers; I know that I won’t get all of it, and if I do, I can always bring in a seedy plant to replant it.  I leave most weeds until they flower; they’re easier to pull.

There is another mustard in our area that is smooth like bitter cress but is much larger, with leaves about 8” long, and typical mustard-yellow flowers—a variety of Winter Cress.   I found some in the bed of Louse Creek, and spread the seeds in a few people’s gardens.  It has taken hold in one but has shown no signs of taking over and becoming weedy, not being nearly as prolific as bitter cress. 

I scattered store-bought water cress seed in a couple of water courses attached to ornamental ponds.  I won’t do it again; it takes over and fills the water course with its spongy net of fine roots, holding the gravel as I pull it out.  Water cress has short, thick lobed leaves on succulent stems that root as they crawl but stay under 3 inches tall, as well as spreading by seed. 
I weeded some out of one watercourse and used it as mulch in a rather moist garden bed in late summer, and it proceeded to grow.  I immediately weeded it out of there, because the blueberries and huckleberries in that bed would not get along well with it; their spongy root masses would compete for the same space in the top of the mulch.  It is better to grow it in a particularly wet spot in the garden or a dedicated water feature than to let it near an ornamental pond watercourse or blueberries. 
It has been used in bio-filters for ponds.  Keeping the seeds confined would be critical for the watercourse; it doesn’t grow in deep water.

Published at under The Natural Gardener #11.

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