Northumberland National Park volunteer Bill Burlton worked for the Forestry Commission at Kielder as Environment Manager and since retiring has been involved with botanical surveys in Northumberland. To start our posts Wild Flower Friday he’s written about a plant found in Northumberland National Park; Hairy Bittercress.
This is a common plant frequently found in gardens and in waste places. It can flower throughout the year but is prominent in the spring when few other plants are in flower often, but not always, growing in small clumps
It is a member of the cabbage family (Brassicaceae), a group of plants that have four similar petals that includes garden plants such as wallflowers, honesty, candytuft and cabbages (brassicas) and a wide variety of wild plants such as shepherd’s purse, pennycresses, rock cresses, and scurvy grasses. In Britain it is one of six species in the bitter cress (Cardamine) genus, four of which can be found in Northumberland National Park as well as hairy bitter cress the three others being : lady’s smock /cuckoo flower, wavy bitter cress and large bitter cress.
Photo by Melissa McMasters from Memphis, TN, United States under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
It can grow up to 30cm but generally it is quite diminutive in gardens, 8-15 cm and has 4 small white petals usually less than 5mm wide. There is a basal, compact rosette of leaves and prominent tubular seed cases usually 10-25mm long.
It is most similar to and most easily confused with wavy bitter cress, but the key difference is that if you peel back the petals there are 4 stamens on hairy bitter cress whereas wavy bitter cress has 6.
Hairy bitter cress is often introduced to gardens as a weed with containerised plants. When the seed pods dry out, they explode, distributing their seed and enabling the plant to rapidly cover the ground. It is said the leaves have a mild peppery flavour and can be used as an addition to spring salads.