Hairy Bitter Cress
Hairy bitter cress belongs to the Cruciferae family, the same family as mustard.
Hairy bitter cress flowers mostly March-August, but occasionally all year.
This wildflower can grow 3 to 30cm tall, but here in the Western Isles it is generally not much taller than 15cm.
Hairy bitter cress grows erect and most of the leaves come from the ground-hugging basal rosette.
Hairy bitter cress is an small annual, or biennial plant.
Hairy bitter cress is common as a weed in gardens, found on waste ground, paths, and LOVES flower tubs.
This wildflower has been recorded up to 1200m.
Hairy bitter cress develops clusters of tiny flowers at the ends of the stem branches. The flowers each have four petals which are white or purplish, and about 2mm long.
Hairy bitter cress is a very common wildflower in the Western Isles.
There are about 25 other members of the mustard family growing here in the Western Isles.
For identification puposes hairy bitter cress is the most abundant small white one in gardens, and shepherd's purse is the one most similar to it.
The easy difference is in the shape of the seed pods, long and thin for hairy bitter cress, triangular sporans for shepherd's purse!
(Shepherd's purse seedpods picture)
This wildflower likes moist soils best, in sunny positions, particularly cultivated gardens
Improving drainage is sometimes suggested as a way of controlling this wildflower, however it is particularly partial to flower tubs and planters which are usually fairly well drained ...
Hairy Bitter Cress Seeds
Hairy bitter cress produces on average about 600 seeds to a plant , 20 in each seedpod.
When the seedpods of hairy bittercress have ripened, if the plant is touched or is moved by the wind - the pods explode sending seeds up to 1 metre in all directions.
If the seeds of this wildflower are moistened they become sticky and attach to clothing, the fur of small animals scurrying about (of which there are far more than most people realise!) stuck to larger insects like beetles, or leaves and other wind blown debris.
By this method the seeds can be spread all around the garden.
If the seeds ping into your eyes whilst you are weeding, they stick, and quickly create an intense burning sensation.
This wildflower can produce seed in about six weeks. (faster on soil low in nutrients)
Hairy bitter cress can produce seeds throughout 8 months of the year.
Fresh seed does not germinate immediately, it needs sun ripening.
The hotter the sun during the ripening stage, the wider the range of temperatures over which the seeds of hairy bitter cress can germinate.
Hoeing or pulling (before seed ripens) is the best way to control the spread of this wildflower.
It is best to hoe hairy bitter cress on dry sunny days as it readily reroots in moist soil (stem fragments can also root)
A mulch of grass-cuttings (maximum 3 inches deep) on freshly weeded or hoed ground is a very useful method of surpressing weed growth on cultivated ground or planters etc.
If allowed to seed hairy bitter cress forms a seed bank which is VERY hard to eradicate.
Although the hairy bitter cress plants are quite small, if they are left to seed unchecked in the vegetable or flower garden for just a couple of months in late spring /early summer, their numbers become enough to stifle and severely surpress the growth of even well established cultivated plants.
The reason hairy bitter cress does not completely take over the garden, is that there are other wild plants competing with it, which have evolved different very powerful reproductive strategies.
As a person who has gardened in the Western Isles for 17 years, it is my opinion that the challenge of gardening here is not dealing with infertile soil, but the opposite, to hold back nature which is constantly trying to take back the land we cultivate. The Hebridean rainfall is lavish, and rich in nitrogen constantly bringing abundant fertility to the land.
Hairy Bitter Cress Uses
Hairy bitter cress is edible. The leaves, young stems and flowers of hairy bitter cress can be eaten as a tangy salad addition - like rocket, or cooked with other greens. They are pleasant tasting, nutty and peppery (not bitter!).
This wildflower is one of the first to bloom providing a valuable nectar source for the first emerging bees.
Hairy bitter cress can be used as a sort of green manure, however it first seeds when still quite small and is definitely best dug in before seeding, so be careful about this.
The name "cardamine" suggests to me some association with the blood, however I have found no herbal references of this nature, so if anyone has more information I would be very interested in hearing from you. It is rare for a very prolific plant to have few known uses.
Other Hairy Bitter Cress Lore
In the language of flowers, the meaning of this plant is "paternal error"
Hairy bitter cress is a host plant for aphids.
Beware, when it is too chilly here in the Western Isles for most of us to garden, hairy bitter cress has already flowered and is starting it's take over of the garden.
This wildflower is very hardy, and can survive the hardest frosts.
The BBC 4 Gardener's Question Time team were asked what plants they would take to the moon, they suggested hairy bitter cress (to be left there!)
Related Wildflowers found in the Western Isles
Hairy bitter cress is a member of the mustard family (Cruciferae) and related to rape, wild turnip, charlock, white mustard, wild radish, sea radish, sea-kale, sea-rocket, field pepperwort, swine-cress, lesser swine-cress, field penny-cress, shepherd's purse, common scurygrass, hedge mustard, thale cress, wavy bitter cress, winter-cress, northern rock-cress, and creeping yellow-cress all wildflowers which have been recorded in the Western Isles.
Names associated with this plant
This wildflower is sometimes called snapweed, cardamine, shotweed, touch-me-not, land cress, lamb's cress, popping cress, or common bitter-cress, and hairy cress but usually hairy bitter cress.
The gaelic name for hairy bitter cress is searbh-bhiolair ghiobach.
Please email the webmaster if you have any more lore or identification tips that we can add to this, or if you spot any inaccuracies.