Herb ofthe Month: Whitetop, Hoary cress, Wild broccoli

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Family: Brassicaceae (Mustard family)

Genus & Species: Lepidium draba

In Northern New Mexico, you will see this noticeable member of the mustard family blooming in the spring months of April and May.

Whitetop is a European and Mediterranean native that has spread to the Americas and Africa. The plant is considered an invasive species in the United States.

Like most plants in this family, the flowers have four petals making a tiny little cross, giving this Brassicaceae family of plants its previous name of Cruciferae. As the name implies, the flowers are white and the plant forms broad flourishes of white patches growing almost anywhere it can gain hold, from sea-level to altitudes of 8,000 feet. Like many mustard family plants, once the flowers are fertilized, it forms little heart-shaped seed pods borne at the end of long stems.

As one of its common names implies, "wild broccoli" is an edible plant. The edible parts are the young leaves and immature flower tops. Like many of the mustard family plants, they have the spicy hot-mustard flavor reminiscent of horseradish.

This "spring green" edible also frequently has a bitter taste that is similar to mustard greens and makes it one of those early-season plants that are considered a spring tonic. Early spring bitter plants have the property of stimulating the digestive process and enhancing the volume of stomach acid and digestive enzymes.

Traditional cultures in temperate climates who consume dried meat, fruit and grains during the winter season find that bitter spring greens help in changing over to a summer diet of more fibrous vegetables. Along with quelites (lamb's quarter or wild spinach), whitetop is one of our most delicious wild spring plant foods. It is important to note that this is one of those "marker plants" that dogs tend to pee on when they make their territorial rounds, so try to collect it in an area away from main travel paths.

As medicine whitetop has been used as an antiscorbutic (for preventing scurvy) and as a bitter tonic.Preheat oven to 375.

Rob Hawley is co-owner of Taos Herb Company. For information, call (575) 758-1991 or visit the website taosherb.com

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