A biennial herb, scurvy grass (botanical name, Cochlearia officinalis) usually grows up to a height of 4 inches to 12 inches. The common scurvy grass is a flowering plant belonging to the genus Cochlearia in the family Brassicaceae. This plant has a straight or bend stem that bears fleshy, oval to heart-shaped leaves having extended stalks. Scurvy grass produces petite white flowers during the period between June and August in terminal clusters. Each flower of this plant has four petals which have an appearance of a cross. The plant generally keeps low and has juicy lower leaves that are close to the ground and their color differs from deep green to red. Occasionally, the leaves are also found to have a deep purple hue. The common scurvy grass is basically a messy plant, which is best liked in accumulation when viewed from a distance. The petite flowers, having four petals, fall from the boughs soon after they bloom making way for inflated seed pods.
Though the herb is known as scurvy grass, in reality it is not a grass, but belongs to the cabbage family. Interestingly, this plant is also found growing in the wild in alpine environments. The plant derives its common name from the reality that its leaves have rich content of vitamin C and sailors suffering from dearth of vitamin C when they spend prolonged periods at sea would sail ashore and consume the leaves of scurvy grass to get relief from their condition - scurvy (an ailment distinguished by distended and bleeding gums, bruised spots on the skin).
The common scurvy grass is generally found growing at the seashore and salty marshlands and has been proved to be very helpful for the seafarers. In the earlier times, sailors often suffered from scurvy owing to vitamin C deficiency as they spend several months at sea without having any fresh vegetables and fruits. However, if any captain, as in the case of the Captain Cook, the 18th century English explorer, stored a good supply of scurvy grass in his vessel, the sailors were regarded to be safe from developing scurvy. This herb is known to enclose rich contents of essential nourishments.
Leaves, aerial parts.
Since the common scurvy grass or Cochlearia officinalis is found growing naturally in saline marshlands, a section of the herbalists were of the view that this plant would also be effective in dissolving the ‘salt' of rheumatism and gout. As the plant encloses tannins, scurvy grass is astringent and may be applied to lessen or stop a nosebleed or other types of bleeding wounds. In addition, this herb is also known to be an effective diuretic and is recommended by herbalists for treating health conditions like dropsy (edema - build-up of fluid in the body) and kidney stones. Some herbalists also assert that the use of the juice extracted from the leaves of scurvy grass helps in cleaning up blotches on the skin.
Apart from being rich in vitamin C content, scurvy grass is also known to be antiseptic and possess gentle purgative properties. The young scurvy grass plant possesses common detoxification properties and encloses an assortment of minerals. Therefore, the young scurvy plant is generally consumed as a tonic during spring. Similar to watercress, the common scurvy grass too possesses diuretic attributes and is helpful in treating any type of health condition wherein malnutrition is an issue. In addition, the juice extracted from the leaves of the common scurvy grass may be used as an antiseptic mouthwash to treat canker sores. The juice can also be applied topically on the skin to treat pimples as well as spots.
Scurvy grass is also known to possess aperient (a mild laxative), disinfectant, anti-scorbutic (an effective medication for scurvy) and stimulant (tonic) properties. In the past, the sailors held this herb in high esteem and they also consumed it as a part of their daily diet with a view to avoid developing scurvy owing to deficiency of vitamin C. The crushed leaves of the plant are applied topically to cure ulcers. For best results, the leaves ought to be used when they are fresh. However, the plant can also be harvested in the latter part of spring or during early summer and dried and stored for use when necessary.
Prior to the discovery of vitamin C, people identified scurvy as a disease that occurred owing to lack of consumption of fresh vegetables and fruits. This is one reason why sailors, who spent several months at sea without having any fresh fruits or vegetables suffered from dearth of vitamin C and developed scurvy. In earlier times, apart from the sailors, people residing in big cities also endured such shortage of fresh fruits and vegetables, especially during famines. Even in those times, the common scurvy grass was identified as a remedy for the symptoms of scurvy and only recently scientists discovered that the herb encloses high amounts of vitamin C, similar to that contained by fresh oranges.
In the present times, herbalists recommend the topical application of the common scurvy grass leaves to treat ulcers and wounds that heal very sluggishly. The plant is indigenous to the swampy lands along the coasts of Europe. This herb is a small biennially growing plant having a broad and succulent leaves that are egg or oval-shaped. The common scurvy bears petite white flowers that appear in clusters at terminals during summer. People, who are keen about wild foods, make use of the leaves and stems of the scurvy grass in the form of salad greens and also as a potherb. The plant possesses a flavour that is akin to that of horseradish and watercress - both close relatives of this herb.
Habitat and cultivation
The common scurvy grass or Cochlearia officinalis is indigenous to Europe as well as the temperate climatic regions of North America and Asia. However, the plant is rarely found in Asia and North America these days. This herb flourishes best in saline soil in the coastal regions as well as in salty marshlands. It may be noted that this variety of plant is cultivated very infrequently. Precisely speaking, the common scurvy grass likes a sandy or gritty soil that is well drained.
Scurvy grass has a preference for sandy or light, loamy or medium and clay (heavy) soils that have an adequate drainage. In addition, this plant has a preference for basic (alkaline), acidic and neutral soils. It also has the aptitude to grow in saline soils. The common scurvy grass grows well in partial shade as in light woodland or in the absence of shade. It has the aptitude to endure maritime climatic conditions too.
As discussed earlier, in the past, the common scurvy grass was generally consumed by the sailors who spent long periods at sea without any fresh vegetables and fruits and developed a deficiency of vitamin C. Since the plant has rich vitamin C content, it was taken to prevent as well as treat scurvy - a health condition that occurs owing to dearth of vitamin C. The common scurvy is a polymorphic (passing through different forms) species, it can hybridize with other species, such as C. anglica and C. danica. It is important to note that scurvy grass is also an important bee plant.
Although scurvy grass is rarely cultivated, this plant may be propagated by its seeds. The seeds of the plant need to be sown in situ (in the place where the plant would grow permanently) in early spring or autumn. Normally, the seeds germinate within two to three weeks when maintained at a temperature of around 15°C.
Side effects and cautions
In the present times, scurvy grass is rarely recommended by herbalists. However, there is not sufficient information to know whether the use of scurvy grass is safe. When this herb is taken orally in large amounts it may result in stomach and intestinal pain. The plant also has the potential to cause skin irritation when it is applied straight away on the skin. Here is a word of caution for women using scurvy grass. They should not use this herb during pregnancy or while breast feeding.