South Uist The bitter leaves of this hardy little plant once provided a welcome dose of vitamin C after a hard winter
Scurvy-grass is usually found in coastal regions, where its high tolerance of saline conditions enables it to flourish where other plants fail to thrive. It is an early flowerer and will grow abundantly on steep cliffs, sometimes forming sizeable, rather untidy clumps of stemmed white flowers.
There is something endearing about this unassuming yet resilient plant, whose presence here is so linked to the beginning of a fresh new season. Strangely, its scent is not mentioned in most of the plant identification guides, yet springtime walks with a warm breeze lifting and carrying up with it the sweet fragrance of the profusion of flowers unseen on the rocky faces below have always been a delight.
Here on the accessible west coast of the island, there are no steep cliffs, only endless white beaches backed by dunes or short nibbled turf. But even here on the turf, scurvy-grass is to be found, albeit in much smaller patches, huddling low and almost stemless to the ground.
Despite the second part of its name, it is not a grass at all but a member of the cabbage family; and its small white flowers bear the arrangement of four petals from which the descriptive Latin name of this group, Cruciferae, arises.
However, the “scurvy” part tells us much more. Scurvy is a disease related to vitamin C deficiency, and in times past, the leaves, bitter though they are, were eaten to provide a welcome dose of vitamin C after a winter diet lacking in fresh greens.
The leaves could also be prepared as an infusion, and even brewed as an ale, a possibly more enjoyable way of providing a much needed spring tonic.
Down at the end of a track across an expanse of machair vibrant with the sound of skylarks and lapwing is a little low headland. But though it is often battered by winter storms, the hardy scurvy-grass still manages to grow here. By kneeling and pressing one’s nose to even these dwarfed plants, it is possible to catch a faint trace of their evocative scent.
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