As winter warms to spring, a favorite weed of foragers starts to emerge in rather cute clumps—it’s hairy bittercress! It has actually been lurking near the surface all winter, having germinated in the fall and waited out the cold temperatures before sending up flowers and seeds.
Thanks so much for informing me that this greenery can be eaten! I have pulled and tossed it from a landscaped bed on a warm winter day, but no more! I’m looking forward to a farmer’s sandwich now!
The Weed of the Month series explores the ecology and history of the common wild plants that most gardeners consider weeds.
More: Learn to identify more weeds and find out more about each one by browsing the Weed of the Month archive.
While urban grazers will be most focused on the leaves, I think the seed capsules are the best part of hairy bittercress. Called siliques, they look like purplish-green toothpicks standing upright around the flower. As the seeds mature, the pods begin to coil tightly until—pop! A gentle touch or passing breeze triggers the pods to explode and send the seeds flying as far as three feet from the mother plant. This ballistic dispersal strategy, known as ballochory, is also employed by jewelweed and cranesbill.
If I don’t get to them in time, I toast the seedheads with my trusty flame weeder before I pull the plants, just like I do with dandelions that have progressed to the puffball stage. Dandelion seeds burst into little flares of color—like Munchkin fireworks. Bittercress seeds explode with a loud ‘pop’. (Organic gardening is SO much more fun than spraying hormonal disruptor around!)
In turf, weeds like bittercress are a sure sign of poor lawn care. The answer is not to poison yourself and the environment (and kill your grass) in a futile attempt to remove the weed, but to care for your lawn correctly and deny the weed a place to live. Take good care of your grass and a harmless little plant like this should never have a chance to get established, much less thrive.
If you scalp the lawn, weeds will thrive. If you water it frequently for short periods of time, weeds will thrive. And if you feed the poor heat-stressed thing in summer, weeds will take over.
Both weeds are also highly edible, especially when young. Chickweed is more nutritious than the salad greens that many people remove it to plant! And, although hairy bittercress (a member of the mustard family) doesn’t have nearly as many wild food fans as chickweed or purslane (perhaps the most edible ‘weed’), it does have some of the peppery taste of its namesake watercress, and it’s loaded with cancer-fighting nutrients. Pick it before the flower buds form and it won’t have nearly as much of the bitter edge that older plants take on. (Flowering changes the flavor of virtually all herbs and greens for the worse.)
If I’m paying attention and life cooperates, I’ll pull the weeds while they’re still in flower and before they set seed. Both weeds get composted—mixed into a good amount of shredded leaves hoarded from the previous fall; at least two parts leaves to every part green weed. The bitter cress typically comes up with a good amount of soil attached to its roots, which adds microbial life to the pile; and the chickweed has a lot of water content to help keep the moistness levels right.