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Foraging for wild food and medicinal plants - Brassicas Plant Profile

Christopher Hope
Monday, 11th February 2013

See the abundance of food in hedgerows and unexpected parts of your garden. Christopher helps you to identify and use wild brassicas

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Different plants will periodically grab the attention of gardener or forager alike, and for a host of reasons. Yet above all others, the assorted tribes of the Brassicaceae (cabbage) family are probably some of the most cherished plants in Britain. I fancy that most growers will know and love a number of these fantastic plants. Sometimes, just for their ornamental beauty, but often also for their sheer productivity and abundance.

An abundant ingredient

No matter if you are pottering and weeding in the garden or allotment, or out strolling by roadsides, waysides, hedgerows, or seaside, all you need to know are the patterns of your prey; keep your eyes peeled, and it won't be difficult to find one of these brassicas. The choice is large, so you could soon easily be meeting and eating any of the following plants that have recently found their way onto restaurant menus:

These include wild rockets, mustards, hedge-mustards, scurvy-grasses, hedge-garlic, horseradish, land cress, watercress, and other types of numerous cresses, as well as the stunning sea kale, dittander, pepperworts, or one of many brassica weeds of cultivation, such as oil seed rape!

The brassicas famously include an array of well-known and tasty vegetables, admired for their incredible hardiness. I doubt there is a cultivated corner on the island where brassicas are not grown and loved! Although, saying this, I didn't love them as a kid; over-cooked cabbage was, and still is, a crime! Having got over my childhood mealtime traumas, I now find these plants a truly magnificent, edible, and medicinal family, without any inedible/poisonous members! Indeed, these wild plants are some of the finest medicinal edibles you will eat!

The medicinal value of brassicas

The nutritional and medicinal value of brassicas are pretty common knowledge. A number of plants, such as horseradish (Armoracia rusticana), were originally brought here specifically for their medicinal abilities. Even though few people now use horseradish expressly for its ability to deal with sinus troubles and colds, everyone who has tried it will have recognised its cleansing power. The aromatic compounds present in many brassica's are volatile, therefore pass through our cells rapidly, disinfecting as they go.

Certain brassica constituents are currently undergoing research by pharmaceutical companies. Formerly referred to as 'mustard oil glycosides', and now known as glucosilinates, these molecules are attracting heightened interest for their anti-cancer activities, especially against breast cancer.
Of our cultivated vegetables, broccoli and watercress are perhaps the most widely researched. They contain the molecule sulforaphane, which also exhibits substantial anti-cancer properties. The message here is simple; the brassica plants offer fantastic preventative medicinal food.

Identifying wild brassicas

Brassicas are almost unavoidable! No matter where you garden or forage, it's almost inevitable that you will come across one of these healthful plants, sooner or later. Experience at plant identification is not necessary, for familiarity soon brings fortune for the forager. Happily, the brassica's are pretty easy to identify, having a distinctive flower. The four petals are displayed in the shape of a cross. This characteristic shape of the flowers, gave rise to their former family name of Cruciferae, meaning 'cross-bearing'.

Other plant families have species with four petals in a cross, such as the rosebay willow herb family (Onagraceae), and poppies (Papaveraceae), but the general growth form of the brassica, coupled with its habitat, and certain diagnostic features in the flower structure, help determine and ensure correct identification. Note that in the middle of a brassica flower there are 6 stamens (male reproductive organs).

The leaves on many brassica plants are pinnately-lobed, and often deeply so. Most brassicas also smell of hot, peppery, sulphurous compounds when crushed. Numerous brassicas are biennial, meaning they take two years to complete their life cycle. These plants grow as a rosette in the first year, then flower during the second. When flowering, the leaves appear alternately spaced on the emerging stem, gradually refining in form, and often clasp the stem with basal lobes. The typical brassica inflorescence appear as loose racemes, and many brassicas produce their seeds in beaked-pods. The patterns of plants are always discussed on my walks and courses. They help facilitate fast-track plant identification.

A few brassicas are annual plants. In towns and cities you may notice one of the short-lived and ephemeral brassicas, the ones that appear to continually grow all about us. You know them; the plants that whenever your gaze falls upon them, suggest they might be in a state of stasis, and to be always flowering, or always growing as a rosette. Plants such as hairy bitter-cress (Cardamine hirsuta), and shepherds purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris), are two such brassica's, offering us tasty leaves, for the salad bowl or cooking pot, almost all year round.

Christopher Hope BSc Med Hort is the author of a forthcoming book out this year, called 'Medicinal Plants in Town and Country - A Foragers Guide', plus two 'wild plant hunter' foraging CDROMS. An experienced and qualified host, he offers a range of unique, fun, and informative foraging experiences, from walks and courses, to narrowboat day-trip foraging cruises 

For more information, foraging advice, and to book on one of our regular walks and courses, please visit the nationwide professional foragers at www.ipsophyto.com and www.meetup.com/Town-Country-Foraging-Walks-Courses/ 

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More resources

The ultimate guide: Food for Free for just £22.50 from our Green Shopping site

Introducing the Plantains - multi-yielding plants for a permaculture system

Foraging for wild food and medicinal plants - Chickweed Plant Profile


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