Field of Science

Scurvy and Cress

Without the subject of today's post, it's just possible that my home country of New Zealand could have had quite a different history. Sometimes, one shouldn't overlook the importance of cress.

Pepperwort Lepidium heterophyllum, copyright Anne Burgess.

Lepidium is a genus of herbs and subshrubs belonging to the Brassicaceae, the same family as cabbages, radishes and cauliflowers. The genus is found worldwide, and more than 150 species have been recognised to date. The fruit is a type of dry capsule called a silicle which is usually dehiscent (one subgroup of Lepidium, previously separated as the genus Cardaria, has indehiscent fruit), with strongly keeled or winged valves, and contains a single pendulous seed in each locule. The seeds are usually copiously covered in mucilage (Mummenhoff et al. 2001). Like other members of the Brassicaceae, Lepidium has not been overlooked for culinary uses. Leaves and stems of number of species in the genus, such as garden cress Lepidium sativum and dittander Lepidium latifolium, are used as pot or salad herbs. A South American species, maca Lepidium meyenii, is grown as a root vegetable.

Because of its wide distribution, some early authors suggested that Lepidium was a very ancient genus whose members had diverged with the break-up of the Mesozoic supercontinents. However, more recent phylogenetic analyses (Mummenhoff et al. 2001) have suggested just the opposite: the crown group of Lepidium may have originated in the Mediterranean-Central Asian region little more than two million years ago. The mucilaginous seeds of many species become sticky when damp, and can easily be carried long distances adhered to birds' feet and other such dispersal agents. Perhaps the most dramatic suggestion of intercontinental dispersal in the genus involves a clade of species found in Australia and New Zealand that phylogenetic analysis suggests originated via hybridisation between two divergent species—with one parent being native to South Africa and the other to California (Mummenhoff et al. 2004).

Cook's scurvy grass Lepidium oleraceum, copyright Andrea Brandon.

It was one of the members of the latter clade that played a small but significant role in New Zealand history. Lepidium oleraceum is an endemic New Zealand species that was once found growing over much of the country. It is commonly known as 'Cook's scurvy grass', because Captain James Cook was able to collect it while surveying New Zealand to provide vitamin C to stave off the scurvy that could have otherwise devastated his crew. Sadly, this once common plant is now extremely rare: the disappearance of mainland-nesting seabirds means that they are no longer around to provide the guano-enriched soils on which this plant thrived. It also proved extremely palatable to introduced herbivores. As a result, Cook's scurvy grass is now almost exclusively found on small offshore islets.


Mummenhoff, K., H. Brüggemann & J. L. Bowman. 2001. Chloroplast DNA phylogeny and biogeography of Lepidium (Brassicaceae). American Journal of Botany 88 (11): 2051–2063.

Mummenhoff, K., P. Linder, N. Friesen, J. L. Bowman, J.-Y. Lee & A. Franzke. 2004. Molecular evidence for bicontinental hybridogenous genomic constitution in Lepidium sensu stricto (Brassicaceae) species from Australia and New Zealand. American Journal of Botany 91 (2): 254–261.


  1. Thanks! (I try to read most of your posts, but don't comment because I don't have anything useful to add. But I appreciate them.)
    I hope lots of people read this particular post: with its historical and ecological slants, it should be of interest to many people who aren't usually thrilled by taxonomic surveys.

  2. Like Allen I read most of your posts but rarely comment. This was an especially interesting one (my botanical bias ;-)

  3. Are there any places - Antarctica, say - which have avoided Lepidium?

  4. Only Antarctica, so far as I can tell. Even isolated oceanic islands such as Hawai'i and sub-Antarctic islands have Lepidium species, though obviously I haven't looked up every island.


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