The Magic of Wild Bittercress

After 15 years in Oregon, our mild winters are still miraculous to me. While much of the country is frozen solid, my garden is muddy and overrun with this:

Wild Bittercress in January

That’s wild bittercress, or little western bittercress (Cardamine oligosperma), and it’s delicious. Definitely classified as a weed, it’s one of my favorite plants in the garden because it’s greenest and freshest in the middle of winter. Also it’s pretty. And you can eat it straight from the plant: it has a delicious peppery taste and a tender texture, reminiscent of young mustard greens or water cress. I like to add it to sandwiches or toss it into a bowl of soup right before eating it. It also makes a very nice pesto, though I usually combine it with other greens for that purpose because the leaves are so small. (There are, after all, only so many hours in the day).

Truthfully my favorite way to eat it is standing in the middle of the garden, my hands chilly from the damp air, my rubber boots sinking into the muddy path between beds. The cherry tree might be asleep, the mugwort reduced to ragged stalks, the sage gray and gnarled, but this little plant is alive and pulsing with life. Eating it floods me with warmth and comfort.

As for metaphysical properties, if I had to choose one native or naturalized plant to be the symbol of Imbolc, bittercress might be it. Little western bittercress is native to this region, wild and plentiful, and as I mentioned, at its peak right around Imbolc. I always interpret Imbolc as a celebration of the first fresh foods and the first glimmers of spring in winter’s bleakness, and bittercress certainly fits that profile as well. It would be easy to incorporate into both the Imbolc feast and the ritual circle: or one might decide to hold the Imbolc circle in the garden, surrounded by the soft foliage of this little plant, as I might do this year.

I might even wear my fancy, pink-flowered rubber boots for the occasion.

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