Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta and Cardamine pensylvanica) is one of the best early spring greens in eastern PA. It is one of over 150 similar species which grow all over the world. The genus Cardamine is in the mustard family, known as Cruciferae or Brassica. So, the plant has a mustard, horseradish, or pepper flavor and scent. It is delicious and nutritious with lots of vitamin C. During warmer winters, it can grow year round. It can be identified by its distinctive rosette form, the fern-like feathery green leaves that grow from the base, and the taller flower stalk with tiny white flowers. It grows lushly, and can grow over-abundantly in fertile garden soil. Once seeds ripen, they shoot out when brushed or touched which is how the plants spreads itself widely. By harvesting it before too much of it seeds in your garden, you can control its spread. Sometimes. As always, be attentive to your harvesting locations so as to avoid toxins.
The best way to eat it is to pick it fresh by clipping the leaves, or pulling the entire plant, roots and all. Trim roots, wash gently with water, then pop straight into a salad. Or sauté in a little olive oil.
Wild Broccoli Raab (Brassica rapa) is my favorite wild green of all. Most people are amazed when they realize that one of the best tasting greens in the market can be harvested in their own back yard. Cruciferous vegetables are all of the family Brassicaceae (also called Cruciferae). These vegetables are widely cultivated, with many genera, species, and cultivars being raised for food production such as mustard, cauliflower, cabbage, garden cress, bok choy, broccoli, brussel sprouts and similar green leaf vegetables. The family takes its alternate name (Cruciferae, New Latin for “cross-bearing”) from the shape of their flowers, whose four petals resemble a cross. These vegetables are also known as Cole crops. They are high in vitamin C, soluble fiber and contain multiple nutrients and phytochemicals. They grow all over the world and prefer open fields, meadows, along roadsides and railways. Do not harvest where there may be toxins.
In eastern PA, there is a short window for harvesting in March and April because the plant flowers in yellow and bolts quickly once warm weather sets. You can observes as the flower stalk rises high and the yellow flowers bloom. Once the seeds ripen, they too can be harvested and turned into homemade mustard. Out west, you can see vast fields of commercially grown Brassica, the yellow flowers like a sea. The seeds are harvested and pressed into Rape Seed Oil.
When harvesting, look for the distinctive clasping leaf that folds around the stem at its base. Cut leaves and stalk so that it will sprout more growth. Best lightly steamed.