Cochlearia officinalis - Common Scurvy-grass

Phylum: Magnoliophyta - Class: Equisetopsida - Order: Brassicales - Family: Brassicaceae

Cochlearia officinalis, Common Scurvy-grass

The shaded hedgerows and ditches of Pembrokeshire (and many other coastal parts of Britain and Ireland) are lit up in springtime by the brilliant white but short-livedflower-masses of Common Scurvy-grass.

Identification

Usually 15 to 40 cm tall, this untidy biennial plant is best admired from a distance. Its succulent lower leaves, varying from dark green to red and even deep purple, are held close to the ground.

Common Scurvygrass, showing stem and leaf forms

The fragrant, four-petalled flowers, 8 to 15mm across, are usually white but sometimes tinged with mauve or purple. Once the short-lived petals have fallen from the flowers, roundish seed pods swell and ripen.

Distribution

Found throughout Britain and Ireland, Common Scurvy-grass occurs also in coastal regions of northern and central Europe; it is also found, although much less frequently, in some mountainous inland locations.

Habitat

This plant is common only near the coast, where it grows on grassy cliffs, in salt marshes and on coastal roadside lanes where winter salting adds to the natural salinity. Inland locations near salt mines and saline springs are also favoured by Common Scurvy-grass.

Cochlearia officinalis, purple-tinged flowers

Heavily salted main roads inland sometimes have central reservations and verges lined with Common Scurvy-grass, but more often the species seen there is the much smaller Danish Scurvy-grass Cochlearia danica. Surprisingly, in view of Common Scurvy-grass's apparent craving for salt, there are also some mountain sites in northern England and in Scotland where Cochlearia officinalis has been recorded.

Blooming Times

The first flowers appear in April, but May is the best month for this member of the Cabbage family. You will see odd patches of scurvy-grass inbloom throughout the summer.

Uses

Sailors ate scurvy-grass when at sea to ward off the debilitating diseaseof scurvy, which is caused by a deficiency of vitamin C.

Common Scurvygrass, buds and open flowers

The symptoms of scurvy are spongy and bleeding gums, bleeding beneath the skin, and extreme weakness. The sharp-tasting leaves of this plant are very high in vitamin C, and at one time scurvy-grass ale was a popular tonic drink. In herbal medicine Cochlearia officinalis was used for its antiseptic properties.

Etymology

Cochlearia, the generic name, comes from the Greek noun kochlarion, meaning a spoon; it is a reference to the spoon-shaped lower leaves of plants in this genus.

The specific epithet officinalis is Latin and translates to 'official' - a description that was applied to many plants that were deemed to be of high pharmaceutical value.

The common name is sometimes written as Scurvygrass or occasionally as Scurvy Grass.

Similar Species

Several similar Scurvy-grass species occur in Britain and Ireland, but the two most common species are Cochlearia officinalis and Cochlearia danica.

The Common Scurvy-grass plants shown on this page were photographed on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path during early spring.


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