Chris Mitchell’s Nature Notes: Not so wild about Scurvy-grass

Scurvy Grass – an interesting experiment in the kitchen

Nature Notes, By Chris Mitchell

The lockdown has caused my nature notes column to wander about even more than usual.

There was always room for sundials and walnuts alongside robins and rockpools … but now we’re in lockdown – wildlife and nature hardly get a look-in.

I really ought to make an effort to stay focused on the wildlife, even though I can’t wander geographically too far afield.

Surely there has to be more to report than slugs grazing algae on house walls, or parsnips struggling to grow, or compost heaps refusing to warm up?

Vitamin C and Scurvy-grass could be a compromise.

After all, it involves having to venture out to the cliff edge, where the Jurassic shales break through the dolerite sills.

I’m feeling better already.

Lots to look at here … primroses, bluebells, red campion, roseroot…

Scurvy-grass: magnificent shiny, dark-green cascades of variably kidney-and-heart-shaped, fleshy, adjective-soaked leaves; some around the base forming a rosette; some higher up clasping the stem; a provincial, unpretentious wayward plant; and hairless, too.

(I think the fresh air must have got to me.)

Common Scurvy-grass is very variable and can be difficult to distinguish from other forms such as English Scurvy-grass – with which it can hybridise – and Danish Scurvy-grass, which happens to have spread inland from sandy and shingly shores along railway lines, having been transported there in ballast, and is currently spreading its range alongside grass verges where roads have been treated with salt and grit – especially along the outside curves of fast dual-carriage-ways where centrifugal force has flung the material out onto the verge …

(Must try and shorten these sentences.)

The Scurvy-grass on the cliff edge is less adventurous.

It is the “common” form, which is a bit unfair because it isn’t that common away from Jurassic outcrops.

And the name is interesting. The link with scurvy is due to it being a source of vitamin C.

And so I tell Janet we could be looking to vary our diet more.

The garden has yet to become fully productive, and we have already tried eating nettles in soup and hairy bitter-cress on salads, and survived.

The guide book was uncomfortably correct when it said that hairy bitter-cress grows on bare open wasteland, which explains why it has taken over much of the garden. The natural progression now was to go and seek out further life forms beyond the garden – another member of the wild cabbage family – Scurvy-grass.

Janet said she would go and look for it down at the shore. “You’ll find it easily,” I told her, “where the water seeps out from the Jurassic shale.”

She brought some back in a freezer bag, carefully kept clean, ready for the obsessively careful naturalist to check if it was what it said it was, under a hand lens.

“Let’s try some for lunch,” I said enthusiastically, “to make up a salad to go with the bread and nettle soup – just a small bit …”

Janet isn’t convinced.

I carefully take a bite out of one of the smallest, most-tender-looking leaves, expecting it to be sharp and peppery, like the bitter-cress had been …

For the first few seconds I was fine … then the intense bitterness suddenly hit me … and it was straight to the bathroom and a full mouthwash with toothbrush and toothpaste to remove every last trace.

The interesting thing was the time delay, which I tried to explain to Janet as she rushed past me to the bathroom.  

We were experiencing the plant’s chemical defence against being grazed.

It involves an enzyme that is released when the plant tissues are crushed and broken.

The enzyme then reacts to produce a sulphur-containing chemical responsible for the intense bitter taste of mustard and horseradish.

It’s a similar chain of reactions found in sprouts and other members of the cultivated cabbage family, only this wild member of the family has yet to be tamed.

I suppose if you were a scurvy-prone sailor from the past, the extreme bitter taste would be better than having all your teeth drop out.