Black pepper, the ubiquitous seasoning that grows mainly on India’s Malabar Coast, is not a plant you will find growing wild in North America. But there is another “pepper” that you can find for free in almost every sunny area of parks, gardens, and even empty lots. Peppergrass, also called poor man’s pepper (Lepidium virginicum) is a native species in the mustard family. Its flavor sneaks up on you. When I give folks on my foraging tours some of the seeds to nibble, I always instruct them to chew a little longer than they might usually. At first they just give me a ho-hum look, and I know they aren’t too impressed with the flavor…yet. A few more seconds of chewing and their eyes widen and heads start to nod in appreciation. I know that they are tasting the mildly hot, mustard-y flavor of one of my favorite wild spices.
The seeds are the most flavorful part of the plant (I’m saying “seeds,” but really I’m referring to the whole edible seedpod disc). But the leaves are also edible, with a light arugula-like pungency. If you decide to use the leaves, go for the rosette of leaves near the bottom of the plant. These are up to 3-inches long and lobed. As you go up the stalks of the approximately foot-high plants the leaves get simpler and smaller. Near the top they are just narrow, linear strips an inch long or less, usually with teeth along the leaf margins. At the tips of the branching stems you’ll find the seed heads, often with a few of the minute, four-petaled white flowers on their tips. The seedpods are tiny flat discs with a notch on one side, and they are arranged along the stalks like the bristles of a brush.
The optimal stage to harvest peppergrass seeds for flavor is when they are still green . They are easy to strip off the stalks: Just hold the growing tip (where the flowers are) with one hand and gently pull downwards along the stem with your other hand. With this method, you can strip off a good quantity of peppergrass in very little time. Remember what I told you about how the flavor of peppergrass isn’t noticeable until you’ve chewed it for a while? For that reason, I don’t use it whole in soups, but either grind it or use the whole seeds in recipes that require some chewing.
You can dry peppergrass for winter use. To do this, leave the seeds on the stalks. Fasten small bundles of the stalks with rubberbands and hang them to dry someplace away from direct light or heat. In about a week, strip the seedpods off as described above. Store them in clean, dry jars for up to 6 months.
Although Lepidium virginicum is a native plant, it is not intentionally planted in parks or gardens. Instead, it shows up as a “weed.” Nonetheless, so that that the peppergrass population can replenish itself, I am always careful to leave a few seed heads on each plant that I harvest from. This not only helps the plant species, but ensures that there will be future harvests for me to find.
Peppergrass Chermoula Recipe
Chermoula is a North African marinade that is usually used with seafood. It is also wonderful on steamed vegetables and mixed into whole grain salads.
1 large clove garlic, peeled OR several underground field garlic bulbs
1 tbsp fresh green peppergrass seedpod discs
1 small hot pepper
1/2 cup fresh cilantro (coriander) leaves
1/4 – 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp salt
Place the garlic, peppergrass, chile pepper, and cilantro in a food processor and pulse to finely chop. Scrape down the sides of the food processor bowl with a spatula and pulse again (repeat a few times to end up with a more or less evenly minced mixture). Alternatively, finely chop the garlic, chile and cilantro. Pound them together with the peppergrass with a mortar and pestle. 2. Add the salt and 1/4 cup of the olive oil and blend. You want to have a slightly liquid paste. Add more olive oil if needed. Chermoula will keep in the refrigerator for up to 2 months.
Leda Meredith teaches foraging and food preservation skills internationally. You can watch her foraging and food preservation videos, and find her food preservation recipes and tips. Her latest book is Northeast Foraging: 120 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Beach Plums to Wineberries.