Monthly Archives: March 2013

These small erect herbs sprout up everywhere, especially in the moist winter season. They are petty spurge (Euphorbia peplus), one of three kinds of spurge (so far) found in my garden. These European natives form picturesque little stands, bloom for a while, and then fade and dry into straw-like heaps.

Euphorbias are weird but pretty plants, typically with separate male and female flowers borne in curious clusters. The “petals” of these flowers are actually modified leaves.

Almost all spurges have poisonous sap. Sometimes they make cows and other pasture animals sick. In fact, the name “spurge” comes from the same root as “purge,” which is what happens when you eat some.

Euphorbias are part of a huge, diverse genus with more than  2000 species around the world. Poinsettias are spurges. Some spurges have developed extreme tolerance to drought and aridity. Some of them actually resemble cacti. There are disputes among botanists about the complex family tree of the Euphorbias.

130308-1100In my garden there are also small low-growing plants of spotted spurge (AKA ground spurge). Unlike petty spurge, spotted spurge lies flat and seldom rises higher than the thickness of a pencil. It can form wide, spreading mats where the ground is bare and there’s enough sun.

Like other spurges, spotted spurge is poisonous. It resembles purslane, which is edible, but has succulent leaves without the purple spots. Be careful if you harvest purslane for the salad!

Not all spurges are (what some people would call) “weeds.” Some have been bred for beauty or size, appearing as prized garden plants. In my garden when I first took it over, there was a large bush of decorative spurge.

That large bush had to be removed because it was so old, and the space was needed. But over the years it had dropped some seeds, and in the spring of 2012 some of them sprouted. Here is how they looked in mid-January 2013. They are tall, bluish plants with red stems and leaves in whorls:


Now it is March, and they are blooming. The flowers are a lot more colorful than petty spurge:



This time of year we see bittercress (Cardamine spp.) in gardens around the Bay Area. It is related to the Arabidopsis thaliana “research cress” that is used around the world in genetic plant research.


There are several species that are difficult to distinguish. If it’s blooming now, in January-March, it’s probably hairy bittercress (C. hirsuta). If it blooms in early summer it could be little bittercress (C. oligosperma). There are a couple of other less common varieties. All of them are small, cute, and totally harmless.

Although hairy bittercress is native to Europe, in my experience it is not at all invasive. You might read other opinions though!

130303-1431From the earliest stages, bittercress is distinctive. The rosette of tiny, pinnate leaflets with one larger, terminal leaflet is unique.

No matter whether you find them invasive or not, please don’t spray herbicides, as some authors suggest.

Instead, may I suggest you eat them? They are small, brightly flavored, and excellent as a flavor enhancer in salads. All parts of the plant are edible.

These tiny gems are always welcome in my gardens. They need moist, nearly bare ground to grow, and are often seen in shady corners where the moist ground has recently been slightly disturbed. Their sweet little flowers are tiny and inconspicuous, but their exploding seed pods are extremely cool.

As you might expect, bittercress tastes fairly bitter. But chop a few of these miniature leaves into a micro-salad for a nice little extra bite of sharpness. They are high in vitamins and very good for you, as long as you don’t spray refined chemicals in your garden.

By the time they start looking like the mature plants surrounding the pretty rock in the picture below, they are past edible. I generally pull them out at this stage, enjoying the mini-explosions of their ripe seed pods, spreading more seeds of this delicious little salad enhancement all over my welcoming garden.