Cut-leaf Toothwort

Cardamine concatenata. Generations ago, when we were an agrarian society and closer to the earth, farm children knew about nature’s bounty. Walking to school in the early spring, young scholars might pass a wood and spot the white or pink blossoms of the toothwort. They’d pull up some roots and wash them off.  They liked the peppery taste, similar to that of the closely related watercress, and would add the roots to sandwiches — or just eat them alone. No surprise, since several species of toothworts are members of the mustard family of flavorful herbs.  American Indians knew that, too, of course, but were more sophisticated than farm children. They would ferment the roots for several days, thereby sweetening them. Farm homemakers liked them so much, they’d pickle roots for winter consumption and use them as a flavoring like horseradish. Cut-leaf Toothwort (Cardamine concatenata), shown here, is among the earliest of our spring ephemerals, yet a long-lasting one, flowering in March and April, and often well into May. The long blooming season helps guarantee that insects will pollinate their fragrant white, pinkish, or lavender flowers that, like typical mustards, have four petals. However, the toothwort does not need seeds to spread, and can do so via its roots or rhizomes, which can lead to large colonies of these plants. Those roots bear tooth-like projections that give toothworts their common name.  The generic name, Cardamine, is from the Greek for “heart-strengthening”; it was long believed some European species could treat heart ailments — not, alas, of the lovelorn.

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