Useful members of the Brassica (Cabbage!) Family. Part 1

Part 1 of the Brassica or Cabbage Family is an introduction to some of the members of this large family.

A more thorough account of all the members can be found in part 2 and part 3.

Family 87: the Brassica or Cabbage Family, scientifically known as the Brassicaceae, has approx 52 native genera according to Stace!

Crambe maritima or Sea kale is an impressive member of the Brassicaceae here on Chesil Beach, Dorset.

This family has a good representation on the British Isles mainly with annuals and perennials. It is easy to recognise as the former family name was Cruciferae which means the flowers always have 4 petals and 4 sepals forming a cross or crucifix. If not in flower the fruits are also a distinctive feature useful for identification.  Many have both the flowers as well as the fruit at the same time, making identification even easier!

Several improved members of this family have been in cultivation for hundreds of years for their food value especially in winter-time such as all the different cabbages and kales. Throughout the year there are vegetables available of this family from salad leaves such as Rocket, Mustard, Cress and their peppery tasting roots such as in the Turnip and Radish!

I use colour coding for easy reading! Blue background is general interesting info (although I hope you find it all interesting!!). Green is about all the uses except for medicinal uses or if there is a warning in which case I use a pink background. Pictures by Matt Summers unless stated.


Some uses of the native Brassicaceae

Draba verna (syn: Erophila verna) or Common Whitlowgrass

Cardamine pratensis or Cuckoo Flower & Lady’s Smock

Capsella bursa-pastoris or Shepard’s purse

Arabidopsis thaliana or Thale Cress

Cochlearia danica or Danish Scurvygrass

Cardamine hirsuta or Hairy Bitter-cress

Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum or Water-cress

Some uses of the native Brassicaceae:

  • The wild members still have a lot to offer to make food more flavoursome and contain a good quantity of Vitamin C too.
  • Several members have medicinal purposes and one member;
  • the Woad  ( Isatis tinctoria) which is an introduced plant from Southern and Central Europe has a useful blue dye.
  • Many are attractive wild-flowers for us as well as for insects and butterflies. The Honesty, which is an escaped garden plant sometimes found in hedges, Jack-in-the-Hedge and Lady’s Smock are all flowering roughly the same time and are the food plant for the attractive Orange-Tip Butterfly. Read some more plants used by this butterfly below:

“Several crucifers are used, especially Cuckooflower (Cardamine pratensis) in damp meadow and Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) along road verges and ditches. Occasionally, it uses Hedge Mustard (Sisymbrium officinale), Wintercress (Barbarea vulgaris), Turnip (Brassica rapa), Charlock (Sinapis arvensis), Large Bitter-cress (C. amara) and Hairy Rock-cress (Arabis hirsuta). In addition, it lays it eggs on Honesty (Lunaria annua) and Dame’s-violet (Hesperis matronalis) in gardens, but larval survival is thought to be poor on these ornamental plants”.

Draba verna (syn) Erophila verna or Common Whitlowgrass

This is one of the earliest to flower and a curious, tiny annual  which lives only for a few months at the most, on open, sandy soils and top of walls, rocks, on drives (see above), etc.

Medicinal Uses:

The species was used to treat whitlow infections.

Cardamine pratensis: Cuckoo Flower, or Lady’s Smock

One of my favourite flowers to see in the spring is Cuckoo Flower or Lady’s Smock (Cardamine pratensis). This is a flower of my youth, where I was brought up in the area of ‘Waterland’, which is north of Amsterdam. As it suggests, the area is rather wet due to its being well below sea-level. Instead of hedgerows we have ditches marking off the pieces of agricultural meadowland and it is in these habitats, as well as all along road-verges, that there were Buttercups, Common Sorrel, Meadow Foxtail, Cuckoo Flower and if it was very wet, the beautiful Ragged Robin (which we (in the Netherlands) call the Cuckoo Flower! ). I once picked a whole load of buttercups and lady’s-smock flowers when I was a young girl, in a little pram I used to have. Not very conservation-minded, but I just couldn’t help myself!

It is edible and has medicinal properties too, but only when you find lots and lots of it….

Capsella bursa-pastoris or Shepard’s purse

With its tell-tale triangular fruits, this grows everywhere, especially along pavements and on stony ground.

C. bursa-pastoris is gathered from the wild, or grown. It has many uses,

  •  For food,
  •  To supplement animal feed,
  •  For cosmetics, and in traditional medicine.
  •  It is cultivated as a commercial food crop in Asia. (from Wikipedia)

Medicinal uses in western medicine:

Arabidopsis thaliana or Thale Cress

This looks very similar to a thin Shepard’s purse plant but has long cylindrical fruits.  It grows in similar habitats as above but not on chalky soils. This plant is of interest to science as it was the first plant to have its genome mapped and is a much used plant in laboratory experiments due to its short life-cycle. (from ‘The Wild Flower Key‘ p. 212)

This plant (Danish Scurvygrass) originates from our coast but is now seen more often along major roads!

Cochlearia danica or Danish Scurvygrass

This is an interesting member which can be seen flowering en masse in spring along our major roads. Unfortunately due to car exhaust, it would not be wise to eat those nowadays.

“A salt-tolerant (normally) coastal plant which is now flourishing along roads and motorways in Europe. Its success has been attributed to its ability to survive the effects of salts distributed by gritters in winter and its small seeds being spread by the high speed of cars in the fast lane.

Full of Vitamin C, it gets its name from sailors chewing it to avoid scurvy. The white to mauve flowers are 4-5mm in diameter”.

Alliaria petiolata or Jack-by-the-Hedge , Garlic Mustard and Hedge Garlic.

“ The name Alliaria alludes to Allium, the genus which includes onions, chives, leeks and garlic. They have in common allyl isothiocyanates that are not released in this one until the leaf is rubbed or chewed.

Rich in Vit. C, it is also antiseptic to the skin – but plenty of fresh plant is needed – to improve the circulation, check infections (including fungal) and so promote the healing of the wounds”.  (extract from Medical Flora of Britain & Northwestern Europe.)

Edible Uses:

The plant has a mild, garlic like flavour.

Young leaves – raw or cooked as a potherb or as a flavouring in cooked foods. The leaves are also believed to strengthen the digestive system. They can be finely chopped and added to salads. The leaves are available very early in the year and provide a very acceptable flavouring for salads in the winter[Ken Fern from PFAF)]. Flowers and young seed pods – raw.

Medicinal Uses:

Garlic mustard has been little used in herbal medicine.

  • The leaves have been taken internally to promote sweating and to treat bronchitis, asthma and eczema.
  • Externally, they have been used as an antiseptic poultice on ulcers etc, and are effective in relieving the itching caused by bites and stings.

The leaves and stems are harvested before the plant comes into flower and they can be dried for later use.

  • The roots are chopped up small and then heated in oil to make an ointment to rub on the chest in order to bring relief from bronchitis.
  • The juice of the plant has an inhibitory effect on Bacillus pyocyaneum and on gram-negative bacteria of the typhoid-paratyphoid-enteritis group.
  • The seeds have been used as a snuff to excite sneezing.

Cardamine hirsuta or Hairy Bitter-cress

Another very common weed growing everywhere along roads, waste grounds and even on bare soil and in plant-pots is the Hairy Bitter-cress (Cardamine hirsuta); this has a pleasant peppery taste and a suitable addition to a salad perhaps? You have to be careful not to get any seeds in your eyes, as the pods burst explosively to scatter their many seeds!

The plant germinates most freely in the autumn and so leaves are usually available all winter.

Edible Uses:

Leaves and flowers – raw or cooked. A hot cress-like flavour, they are mainly used as a garnish or flavouring in salads etc but are also sometimes used as a potherb.

The Water-cress happily growing in between the side of a Walsall canal!

Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum or Water-cress

The Water-cress (Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum) can be found in the wild alongside clean running water of streams and other damp places along water-edge.

Medicinal Uses:

“ The seeds can be used like mustard; the leaves are not only anti-scorbutic (agents that relieve or cure scurvy) but are febrifuge (help reduce fever/high body temperatures) and cleansing to the urinary system. Their consumption in quite large amounts for short periods is also cleansing to the skin. The derivation of the name may be from the Latin for a ‘nose-twister’, referring to its pungency or from Greek mnastorgion: ‘that longs for wet soil’. Said also to be, like Horseradish, effective against pulmonary complaints and also, by external application, for sciatic pain. Applied as a lotion to balding scalps, it is said to arrest the process and to promote re-growth of hair. I have witnessed a herbal preparation having this effect, but I was not permitted to know its constitution. According to Durraffourd (Cahiers de Phytotherapie Clinique 3, 63) it stimulates both the endocrine and exocrine pancreas”.

(extract from Medical Flora of Britain & Northwestern Europe.)

Edible Uses:

Whilst the plant is very wholesome and nutritious, some care should be taken if harvesting it from the wild. Any plants growing in water that drains from fields where animals, particularly sheep, graze should not be used raw. This is due to the risk of it being infested with the liver fluke parasite. Cooking the leaves, however, will destroy any parasites and render the plant perfectly safe to eat. May inhibit the metabolism of paracetamol. 

Water cress is mainly used as a garnish or as an addition to salads, the flavour is strong with a characteristic hotness.

It has a reputation as a spring tonic, and this is its main season of use, though it can be harvested for most of the year and can give 10 pickings annually. Some caution is advised if gathering the plant from the wild, see the notes above on toxicity. The leaves are exceptionally rich in vitamins and minerals, especially iron. The seed can be sprouted and eaten in salads. A hot mustardy flavour[K]. The seed is ground into a powder and used as a mustard. The pungency of mustard develops when cold water is added to the ground-up seed – an enzyme (myrosin) acts on a glycoside (sinigrin) to produce a sulphur compound. The reaction takes 10 – 15 minutes. Mixing with hot water or vinegar, or adding salt, inhibits the enzyme and produces a mild but bitter mustard.

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