Bernhard FeistelA gentle warning of dittander

Winter in Europe, apart from admiring flowers that defy the frost and pondering on structural strengths and weaknesses in a garden, is time for reflection and planning ahead. And to admit mistakes and think about ways of rectifying those.

Dittander, or peppercress, growing alongside woodruff

Whilst I was much in praise of woodruff recently or was dwelling on the collective strength of herbs, I have a word of warning to say about dittanderLepidium latifolium, also known as pepper cress. Who would not fancy perennial cress ready to be picked all season and without the annual need to sow out repeatedly? It is a brilliant addition to fresh salad and has a distinct hot taste somewhat comparable to mustard, nasturtium and horse radish. So far so good.

Dittander is an imposing plant (by European herb garden standards) which comes back even stronger after being pruned harshly, to quickly produce small and even tastier fresh leaves in abundance. Like a Hydra? Yes! And, unfortunately, not only above but even more so below ground since it develops a wicked root system to shoot up everywhere. It compares well to ground elder or couch grass in that regard. Both have medicinal and nutritious qualities, too.

At first I was rather happy, since I tend to acquire a single plant first and then look how it propagates for me. This doesn’t contradict the useful practice to better plant in groups, it just means that the planting progress takes longer, which doesn’t matter if applied in one’s own garden or at an experimental stage. I proudly gave many offspring to friends praising the qualities of an easy care-free plant but should have been a little more cautious and added some qualification: The weedy habits of some herbs need to be taken into consideration.

Lepidium latifolium spreads by both seeds & runners

By all means, try this plant but in a well-defined restricted area and with measures to prevent the roots from rambling. It is really invasive. Large pots might be a solution, a cold frame of its own, a place in the kitchen garden where you dig and fork around all year, or a secluded if not neglected spot if you happen to garden in a large enough area with far away neighbours.

For herb nurseries, though, this plant seems to be a “no-brainer”, perhaps best to be advertised as a secret, low maintenance and forgotten species, never mind that in some areas of the world it has to be at least restricted since it can disturb or overwhelm ecosystems (as I know by now). Yet, one’s owl is another’s nightingale as the German proverb says, and after I discovered that the well known and loved North German herb nursery Rühlemanns even sells stinging nettle seeds I have become somewhat relaxed about having presented friends with a potential Pandora’s Box.

In any case, the fascination of collecting plants should ideally be accompanied by studying their natural habitat a little. Otherwise it could end up as described in many old fairy tales like the Sweet Pie, or in Goethe’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice. (and the English translation)

Which is, of course, an evergreen problem not only gardeners have to deal with.

[Note for Australian readers – Lepidium latifolium seeds are prohibited in Tasmania]

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Bernhard Feistel

About Bernhard Feistel

Gardener and academic in rural England and sometimes also in his native Saxony, Germany; special interest in herb, maze and wildflower meadow designing and gardening. Norfolk, UK

2 thoughts on “A gentle warning of dittander

  1. Kim Howlett on said:

    Hi Bernhard

    Your article about the Broadleaved Pepperweed is interesting, and I’m not the kind of guy to inflict this plant on ecosystems around the world, especially in Australia, where I come from originally. However, I now live in Istanbul, Turkey, and Turkish doctors tend to reach for the knife whenever the odd kidney stone pops up on one’s x-ray. So, I intend to self-medicate, to subject my body to the stone breaker tea, but without the associated costs these herbal experts want to charge. Suffice to say, I’ll grow my own Pepperweed. But one question for you: where is the best place to buy the seeds? I’ll appreciate your help here if you can give it, and your reward will be that you spared another human from the awful pain that comes with these stones. Cheers, mate!!

    • bernhardfeistel@googlemail.com on said:

      Dear Kim,

      Sorry for getting back so late. It’s a pity I didn’t know earlier since I could have saved plenty of seeds and sent it to you. My plants will now flower next time next year.
      I have just checked Rühlemanns in Germany but they seem to send the plant only.

      I got mine from Norfolk Herbs in the UK:
      http://www.norfolkherbs.co.uk/

      Although I suppose they grow theirs’ from runners, too, which is so easy, it might be worthwhile to get in touch. They are very friendly.

      Additionally, I have found this company on the internet which seems to supply the seeds:
      http://www.pfaf.org/user/cmspage.aspx?pageid=120

      Yet, if these attempts fail, please get in touch again and I could try to send you young runners to Turkey. Inside the EU this seems perfectly legal and shouldn’t cost a fortune. (I am off to Germany tomorrow, though, but back on the 25th.)

      And all good wishes in any case,

      Bernhard

      P.S. In the meantime, or additionally, you could try Basil and, another weed, horsetail.