Weed Walk with the Cabbage Family
The gardener’s best revenge is to eat the weeds that beset them. And some of the most edible weeds are members of the cabbage family.
The gardener’s best revenge is to eat the weeds that beset them. And some of the most edible weeds are members of the cabbage family. They are easy to recognize when in bloom: They have flowers with four petals and conspicuous, often interestingly shaped seedpods. This week we will look at some cabbage family plants whose leaves and blossoms are delicious in salads. Later, we will look at some whose seeds – which will be here soon – are especially useful.
Garlic Mustard (Alliaria officinalis)
Here are the pretty flowers of garlic mustard poking out of the sturdy goat-proof fence around my garden. If the goats don’t eat them, we will. The more of the flowers we pick and eat now, the fewer seeds there will be to sprout and grow next spring. Later, we will discuss what to do with seeds that do develop, for one can rarely eat every single flower. Garlic mustard blossoms taste good, and look great, in salads. We pinch off the entire top, flowers and flower buds, and toss it whole in salads.
The leaves of the flowering plants are smaller and tougher and more bitter now, so we leave them (or feed them to the rabbits) and start harvesting garlic mustard leaves from the first-year plants. They sprouted last month, and have grown big and tender without any tending on my part. All I have to do is harvest as many tasty, vitamin- and mineral-rich greens as I want to cook and put in my salads.
Queen of the Night (Hesperis matronalis)
Field guides call her Dame’s rocket, and she does bloom at the same time as yellow rocket, also known as Barbara’s cress. I prefer the literal translation of her botanical name however. Especially as it reminds us to visit with her at night, at twilight, when her scent is released to lure her lover, a moth as big and as fast as a hummingbird. Some people confusingly call her Wild Phlox. She does come in the same colors as phlox – a mix of whites, light purples, and pinks – and she is about the same height, but phlox has five petals, and this flower clearly has the classic four petals of the cabbage family.
We carefully pick the lower flowers, leaving the buds in the center to develop so we can have flowers for our salads for weeks and weeks and weeks. Yum.
Hedge Mustard (Sisymbrium officinale)
We identify plants by their flowers, but often we want to use them when they are not in bloom. Look carefully at one or more of the weedy cabbage family plants that grow around you. Look daily for a period of several weeks; watch the plant go from just leaves to leaves and flowers, and finally to seeds. You will notice that their leaves change shape as the flower stalk pushes up from the basal rosette. The leaves of hedge mustard do not change as much as most, in shape or in flavor, so they are easier to recognize and still fine to use at all stages of their growth.
One photo shows a bare patch in the garden that rapidly filled in with hedge mustard. It grew there last year and I let several of the tastiest plants go to seed, which I shook out onto the soil when I pulled the dead plants out last fall. With little effort, I have a bed of delicious greens to use in salads or for braising. (Yes, there are a few lamb’s quarter plants in there, too.)
The other photo shows the small, yellow, four-petaled flowers of hedge mustard, which defy custom and refuse to arrange themselves in a cross shape, crowding together, instead, into an “H.” The photo also shows the darker, more pointed, more trisected leaves found on the flower stalk. I happily eat these leaves as well as the younger, more tender, ones. I don’t bother to harvest the flowers; they are too small. I plan to experiment with the seeds this year, however.
Share your successes. Share your failures. What wild cabbage family plants you are eating and how you are preparing them? Send photos too. Much appreciated.
Green blessings. Susun