Heirloom plants

In praise of an outlaw, hesperis matronalis; or, if you can’t beat it, eat it

hesperis in the garden

Dame’s Rocket is considered invasive and is illegal to cultivate in three states. Fortunately, Vermont is not one of them, because hesperis matronalis is, in my humble opinion, a very useful and important plant in a cold climate permaculture scheme. Rocket is fairly well known as an ornamental, and is a survivor (and, yes, escapee) of long abandoned flower gardens. It is a crucifer, a member of the mustard family, but few gardeners realize that it is an edible cousin of those nutritional powerhouses kale, broccoli, and cabbage.

Over wintered hesperisSpring greens

Rocket is reputed to sometimes be a short-lived perennial, but is mainly biennial. What I really like about it is that its foliage survives winter well with no protection, lots better than kale leaves do for me. This makes it one of the very first sources of spring greens available to us. As soon as the snow melts, you can push aside the tattered old leaves and find tender green shoots hiding beneath. All through spring, we pinch off tender new leaves, shoots, and unopened flower buds for salad; and in June the blooms are fine garnishes as well, not to mention fragrant cut flowers.

Rocket blooming

Herbal authority Maude Grieve lists it as antiscorbutic, which implies that it is very high in vitamin C. The leaves have a slightly acrid after taste, that may be off putting for some, but I find it pleasant. It mixes well with other salad greens, but I think the trick is, as with so many greens, to harvest only tender new growth.

Rocket is a managed volunteer in our gardens. Its growth cycle is easy to integrate with vegetable plantings. We leave a few first year seedlings growing here and there around the garden when weeding. They take very little space the first year, and in the spring occupy what would otherwise be empty space. (The tender weedlings are also good in salad.) Rocket begins flowering just as we get past any likelihood of frost, and when the space is needed for frost tender plants. By that time it not as useful for greens, so a few very robust plants are chosen for seed and staked up. The photo at left shows the nearly mature seed pods on a staked plant. The rest of the plants throughout the gardens are pulled as the space they occupy is readied for planting other things, though some plants get to linger past blooming to ensure maximum pollination of the plants that will be left to bear seed.

And why, you may wonder, would anyone fuss about seed from an invasive weedy plant? Well, copious seed production is what makes hesperis matronalis a pest, but the seed happens to be fine for sprouting. It is a little sharp in flavor, but mixes well with milder sprouts, and other salad elements. For sprouting, you don’t even have to bother to clean the seed thoroughly, you can just float off the trash as you make the sprouts.

Outlaw, maybe, but I think she’s a classy dame nonetheless!

14 Responses to “In praise of an outlaw, hesperis matronalis; or, if you can’t beat it, eat it”

  1. Norma says:

    Very cool!

  2. gayle says:

    Does it work as a cooked green, as well?
    I’m fascinated with all your sprouting. I’d never thought beyond alfalfa, bean, and brocolli…

  3. the extreme gardener says:

    Hi Gayle – I’m sure rocket would be fine cooked. I never have, mainly because I have a fetish for fresh raw greens. I guess that’s why I’m always trying to figure out more easy things to sprout, for fresh green stuff to get though the long winters…

  4. Mike says:

    What an interesting plant, I have never heard of it before. I am always looking for plants that will provide early spring greens. We use Sorrel for its vitamin c content and have come to enjoy the unusual flavor in our salads. I wrote Dame’s Rocket on my “new things to try” list. Thanks.

  5. david says:

    This is a nice tribute to this plant.

    I expect you know some authorities say the flowers are edible(E.g.,The Encylopedia of Edible Plants of N.America), I thought it was interesting you refered to them as a garnish, (of course I’ve never heard of a poisonous garnish). Are they any good?

    I’m getting quite into edible flowers in salads, similar buzz to eating bags of sweets with all that vivid (mostly) artificial colouring. The color is about half the kick I reckon, they wouldn’t spend so much adding it otherwise.

    I’ll definately be trying this plant this year in my semi-Permaculture garden/orchard here in New Zealand.

  6. the extreme gardener says:

    Yes, hesperis flowers are fine to eat, nice mild sweetish flavor. I call them a garnish because they’re so beautiful I tend to put them on top of a salad rather than bury them in the greener parts; also, unlike violets and other smaller flowers that hold their shape tossed with other ingredients, hesperis blooms get folded and squashed when worked into a salad’s depths. It definitely is about eye candy…

  7. Tycho says:

    Great little article about this plant! I’m growing it for the first time also, for the greens. I have read that it is biennial/perennial, do you have any experience of getting it to go on for another year by cutting the flowering stalk? I’ve tried this with some other biennials and some will go another season if they dont get to go to seed. I’m going to let some go to seed though for sprouting seed! Thats a great idea! We fortunately don’t have to worry about it being too ‘invasive’ here as its a native plant here (Denmark), so I’m not too afraid of letting it go to seed.

  8. admin says:

    Hi Tycho!
    We have it in such abundance that I haven’t tried to get it to behave as a perennial. I actually pull out a lot of the plants when and soon after they bloom and just leave some of the biggest to develop seed. That way the plants that are left benefit from a greater number of pollen parents for seed making. That’s the time of the year that I need the garden space for warm weather plants, so it works out pretty well. The new seedlings come up between the warm weather crops and I leave them to over winter.

  9. Rhizowen says:

    Fascinating information – Hesperis grows well in this area (SW UK) and is fairly common in hedges and banks. That sprouting idea is really good – must try it. Do you have Turkish rocket?

  10. admin says:

    Hi Rizowen – I just got some seed for Turkish Rocket this spring, so I’m not really yet acquainted with it…

  11. Ottawa Gardener says:

    I love this post, by the way and linked you on a HG thread about this plant. Well written and informative.

  12. Mike says:

    Just wanted to let you know how happy we are with the hesperis you sent via seed in 2009, it is growing well and we are making very good use of this plant. I might even try growing it under our row covers this year as it has proven to be such an extremely hardy plant….thank you.:)

  13. Siobhan Landis says:

    Great article! I just received a letter from the local authority telling me to eradicate all traces of Dames Rocket from my yard, because here it’s deemed a noxious weed (which I didn’t realize – I just thought it was pretty and smelled wonderful).

    So, after removing all of them from my front garden, I wondered if in addition to smelling great, they were actually edible. Figures.

    I’m a big fan of edible weeds, and these would have been a good addition.

  14. Diane says:

    It is a magnet for swallowtail butterflies in its first flowering.

    I keep deadheading so it keeps flowering. It is the end of August now, and I still have flowers, though not the masses I had in spring, and the only butterflies enjoying it now are cabbage whites.

    on the Pacific coast, Canada.

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