Flora of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago


S.G. Aiken, M.J. Dallwitz, L.L. Consaul, C.L. McJannet, R.L. Boles, G.W. Argus, J.M. Gillett, P.J. Scott, R. Elven, M.C. LeBlanc, L.J. Gillespie, A.K. Brysting, H. Solstad, and J.G. Harris

Cochlearia groenlandica L.

English: Scurvy-grass, bad man's oatmeal, common scurvy grass, round leaved scurvy grass, scorbute grass, scruby grass, scurvy cress, scurvygrass, scurvy-grass, spoonwort, scurvy weed,

French: Cochléaire, cochléaria (officinal), cranson (officinal), herbe à la cuiller, herbe aux cuillers, herbe aux cuillères, herbe au scorbut, herbe aux scorbutiques (Small 1997),

Inuktitut: Tipitsiarktut nunarait (Baffin Island), qunguliit (Nunavik).

Brassicaceae (Cruciferae), Draba family.

Published in Sp. Pl. 647. 1753.

Type: Selected by Elven and Nordal, in Jonsell and Jarvis, Nord. J. Bot. 22: 69. 2002. Lectotype: LINN 826.3.

Epitype: Greenland: Disko, Mudderbugten, between Alákariaq and Isungua, 24.07.1975, L. Andersen and S. Hanfgarn 135 (O), selected by Elven and Nordal, in Jonsell and Jarvis, Nord. J. Bot. 22: 69. 2002.

Synonymy. Cochlearia officinalis L. subsp. groenlandica (L.) A.E. Porsild, Ill. Fl. Can. Arct. Arch. 92. 1957.

Cochleariopsis groenlandica (L.) Á. Löve and D. Löve, Bot. Not. 128: 514. 1976.

Cochlearia fenestrata R.Br. in Ross, Voy. Explor. Baffin's Bay, App. 143. 1819.

Cochlearia polaris Pobed., Nov. Sist. Vyssh. Rast. 6: 99. 1970.

Cochlearia anglica auct., non L. (1759);

Cochlearia officinalis auct., non L. (1753);

?Cochlearia pyrenaica sensu Á. Löve and D. Löve (1975), non DC. (1821).

Cochlearia fenestrata R.Br., Voy. Explor. Baffin's Bay, App. 143. 1819.

Cochlearia polaris Pobed., Novosti Sist. Vyssh. Rast. 6: 99. 1970.

?Cochlearia arctica Schltdl., in DC., Syst. Nat. 2: 367. 1821.

?Cochlearia officinalis L. var. arctica (Schltdl.) Gelert, in G. Andersson and Hesselman, Bih. Kongl. Svenska Vetensk.-Akad. Handl. 26, afd. 3, 1: 40. 1901.

?Cochlearia officinalis L. subsp. arctica (Schltdl.) Hultén, Fl. Kamtchatka 2: 147. 1928.

?Cochleariopsis groenlandica (L.) Á. Löve and D. Löve subsp. arctica (Schltdl.) Á. Löve and D. Löve, Bot. Not. 128: 514. 1976.

?Cochlearia oblongifolia DC., Syst. Nat. 2: 363. 1821.

?Cochlearia officinalis L. var. oblongifolia (DC.) Gelert, in G. Andersson and Hesselman, Bih. Kongl. Svenska Vetensk.-Akad. Handl. 26, afd. 3, 1: 39. 1901.

?Cochlearia officinalis L. subsp. oblongifolia (DC.) Hultén, Fl. Kamtchatka 2: 147. 1928.

?Cochlearia arctica Schltdl. subsp. oblongifolia (DC.) V.V. Petrovsky, in Tolm., Fl. Arct. URSS 7: 159. 1975.

?Cochleariopsis groenlandica (L.) Á. Löve and D. Löve subsp. oblongifolia (DC.) Á. Löve and D. Löve, Bot. Not. 128: 514. 1976.

Cochlearia officinalis auct., non L. (1753).

Cochlearia anglica auct., non L. (1759).

Vegetative morphology. Plants 2–32 cm high; biennial herbs; caespitose (first year), or not caespitose (second year). Taproot present. Caudex absent. Aerial stems erect, or prostrate. Leaves heterophyllous; mainly basal (first year), or distributed along the stems (second year); alternate; dying annually and non-persistent. Petioles present, or absent (lower cauline leaves petiolate, upper leaves sessile); 8–15(–40) mm long; flat; glabrous. Leaf blades simple. Leaf blade bases truncate, or cuneate. Blades 3–12 mm long, 2.5–11 mm wide, spreading, ovate, with inconspicuous veins. Blade adaxial surface glabrous. Blade abaxial surface glabrous. Blades lobed (usually) or not lobed. Blade margins entire or dentate (shallowly), glabrous. Hydathodes present but inconspicuous, or absent. Blade apices rounded.

Reproductive morphology. Flowering stems two or more per plant; with leaves. Flowers in inflorescences. Inflorescences racemose; terminal, or lateral; dense (in flower), or diffuse; (0.5–)1–12 cm long; 7–15 mm wide; elongating as the fruit matures. Pedicels present; glabrous. Flowers per inflorescence (10–)15–20; small; radially symmetrical (actinomorphic). Sepals conventional; 4; free; 0.6–1.1 mm long; 1.8–2 mm wide; green and purple; herbaceous. Calyx glabrous. Petals conventional; free; 4; white; without contrasting markings; obovate; unlobed; 2.7–3.2 mm long; 0.7–0.8 mm wide. Stamens 6; stamen filaments markedly unequal in length; stamen filaments glabrous. Anthers yellow; ellipsoid; 0.1–0.2 mm long. Ovary superior; carpels 2; syncarpous. Ovaries sub-globose; glabrous. Styles 1; thick and short; 0.1–0.2 mm long; straight. Stigmas per ovary 1. Placentation parietal. Ovules per ovary 14–16. Fruit stalked; stalk (4–)5–7(–15) mm long; dry; a silique; spherical (subglobose intially), or ovoid (divaricately ascending when mature); black and yellowish; 3–5(–6) mm long; 2–3 mm wide; glabrous; distinctly flattened (CAN 258718, possibly subsp. arctica), or not distinctly flattened; dehiscent; shedding the outer walls to expose a thin inner wall, with the seeds attached at the margins on either side. Styles remaining straight; persisting in fruit 0.1–0.2 mm long. Seeds 10–16; 0.8–1 mm long; brown (orangish); surfaces smooth, rugose.

Chromosome information. 2n = 14.

2n = 14. Flovik (1940, Svalbard); Sørensen and Westergaard, in Löve and Löve (1948, Greenland); Böcher and Larsen (1950, Greenland); Holmen (1952, Greenland); Löve and Löve (1956, Iceland); Löve and Ritchie (1966, northern Canada); Mosquin and Hayley (1966, northern Canada); Zhukova (1966, 1967a, northeast Asia); Hedberg (1967, northern Canada); Engelskjøn and Schweitzer (1970, Bear Island); Engelskjøn (1979, Bear Island, Svalbard); Johnson and Packer (1968, northwestern Alaska, as C. arctica but within the area of C. groenlandica); Gill (1971, 1976); Zhukova and Tikhonova (1971, Chukotka); Packer and McPherson (1974, northern Alaska, as C. arctica but within the area of C. groenlandica); Dawe and Murray, in Löve (1981d, northern Alaska, as C. arctica but within the area of C. groenlandica); Löve and Löve (1982, Arctic Canada); Zhukova and Petrovsky (1984); Dalgaard (1989, western Greenland); Mulligan (2003 as C. groenlandica).

Ploidy levels recorded 2x.

Indigenous knowledge. Members of the genus are called scurvy grass, and the leaves are eaten raw or boiled as an antiscorbutic. The leaves are fleshy, an adaptation that allows them to conserve water within the plant, and the shape of the leaves is responsible for the common name ‘spoonwort.’ The leaves are high in vitamin C, but not particularly tasty. The early sailors and explorers, who overwintered in the Arctic, suffered from scurvy caused by a lack of vitamin C in their diets. They sought the scurvy grass as a dietary supplement. They even boiled it (with poor results) and made a ‘tincture’ of it (scurvy grass ale) by soaking it in vinegar or alcohol (Schofield 1989). A number of plants were called "scurvy-grass", so this name in an early journal does not necessarily refer to this species.

Porsild (1953) reported that the somewhat peppery flavoured leaves when eaten raw as a salad, or when cooked, are considered a valuable antiscorbutic and as such are mentioned in the narrative of numerous arctic expeditions; but the scurvy grass is not eaten by either Eskimo or Chukchi.

Ecology and habitat. Substrates: wet meadows, hummocks, around the margins of ponds, depressions of low-centre polygons, along streams, river terraces, ridges, seashores; rocks, gravel, till, moss; with low organic content, peat; acidic, or nitrophilous, or non-calcareous.

North American distribution. Huxley et al. (1992) noted that Cochlearia officinalis s.l. is a circumpolar, salt-tolerant sea-beach plant that thrives near sea-bird nesting sites producing high concentrations of nitrogen from their droppings. In Europe it occurs along the shores and some rivers of Scotland, in stony muddy and sandy soils in England and Ireland, along the sea-coasts of northern and western Europe, in many salt marshes in northern and western Europe, and at elevations up to 2200 m in the great European mountain chains such as the Alps. A few records of C. officinalis have been noted in lowland inland situations in Britain, usually on roadsides, generally in situations where salt has been used for the clearance of ice (Wyse Jackson, personal communication, 1999). In North America scurvy grass is found in various habitats, including sandy seashores and sea-cliffs, open fields, wet hillsides, stream banks, rock crevices, mud flats, mountainous, stony, loose, granular soil resulting from the disintegration of rocks, in moist coastal sands, on silt and gravel mounds, in marshes and muddy areas. It occurs along the Arctic coast, from Greenland to Quebec to Alaska, down the West and Atlantic coasts of Canada. In the U.S. it may be established in Washington (Scoggan 1978–79), and an isolated population occurs off Del Norte County, California (Rollins 1993). Alaska, Yukon, Northwest Territories Islands, continental Northwest Territories, Nunavut Islands, continental Nunavut, northern Quebec, Labrador. Range in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago widespread. Common. Arctic, coastal. Arctic islands: Baffin, Devon, Ellesmere, Axel Heiberg, Ellef Ringnes, Parry islands (Bathurst, Melville, and Prince Patrick), Cornwallis, Banks, Victoria, Prince of Wales, Somerset, King William, Southampton, Coats (Bylot, Digges, Lougheed, Meighen, and Prince Charles islands, Boothia and Melville peninsulas).

Northern hemisphere distribution. Circumpolar. Northern Iceland, Northern Fennoscandian (?), Kanin–Pechora, Svalbard – Franz Joseph Land, Polar Ural – Novaya Zemlya, Yamal–Gydan, Taimyr – Severnaya Zemlya, Anabar–Olenyok, Kharaulakh, Yana–Kolyma, West Chukotka, Wrangel Island, East Chukotka, West Alaska (?), North Alaska – Yukon, Central Canada, Labrador – Hudson Bay, Ellesmere Land – Peary Land, West Greenland, East Greenland (but non-arctic in North America).

Economic uses. The plant has an unpleasant odour like that of horseradish.

Historically, scurvy grass was used by mariners, explorers, prospectors, and traders to combat scurvy resulting from vitamin C deficiency. The leaves steeped in ale were highly valued by sailors, perhaps as much for the alcohol as for preventing scurvy. In Scandinavia, scurvy grass sometimes persists around dwellings where in historical times it was planted as a source of vitamin C or for other medicinal purposes (Nordal, personal communication, 2000). Today, it is occasionally cultivated as a culinary herb, and collected also as a wild edible plant.

Scurvy grass was important historically as a conveniently obtainable green. To a minor extent, northern people in North America and Europe still make use of it today for the same purpose (Szczawinski and Turner 1980). The species has no commercial importance, although it is occasionally sold through seed catalogues.

Scurvy grass is sometimes grown as a salad plant and potherb with a warm flavor reminiscent of cress, although opinions differ on its palatability. Grieve (1931) characterised the taste as bitter, acrid, tarry, and unappetizing, and Gabriel (1975) stated that it tastes too much like tar to be liked by many people. By contrast, Fernald et al. (1958) described scurvy grass as one of the most agreeable of salads, and Szczawinski and Turner (1980) found it delicious. Michael (1980) wrote that "it is excellent in salads, and makes the best sandwiches of any wild plant I know, a cross between cucumber and mustard and cress, very cool and juicy. Scurvy grass does not make good tea, it is insipid and slightly salty when drunk as an infusion." The opinions expressed above may not simply reflect different personal tastes, but the different tastes of different races of scurvy grass. Nordal (personal communication) observes that in Norway subsp. norvegica is milder and tastes better than subsp. officinalis. The succulent, slightly salty leaves can be eaten fresh or cooked; the taste of fresh leaves is very pungent. They can be used in tossed green salads like watercress, in sandwiches along with other ingredients, and in soups, sauces, and stuffed vegetables. Michael (1980) recommended that before serving scurvy grass in a salad, it should be soaked in fresh water for at least half an hour, and salt omitted from the salad dressing, as the scurvy grass has enough of its own. The flower-heads are also sometimes eaten like the leaves (Facciola 1990). Scurvy grass is occasionally cultivated in gardens as edible landscaping.

Michael (1980) has a recipe for Scurvy grass sandwiches. Szczawinski and Turner (1980) have recipes for Scurvy grass salad and Scurvy grass salad with rice (Small 1997).

Elven (personal communication, 2005) noted that the chemical contents, and thereby the taste, are different in C. officinalis and C. groenlandica. If the above references are to plants from mainland western Europe north to mainland Norway, they refer to C. officinalis. If they are from Iceland, Greenland, or North America, they refer to C. groenlandica. Coastal C. officinalis is much richer in glycosides than both the fjord plants ('norvegica') and the arctic plants (C. groenlandica). This is almost certainly as a defence against grazing (and insects).

Chemistry. The leaves contain a glycoside, butyl mustard oil, a bitter principle, and tannins (Gabriel 1975). The pungent oil contains a sulphide (Grieve 1931). A type of alkyl-glucosinolate (2-butyl glucosinolate, also called glucocochlearin) was found in some northern Scandinavian populations (Nordal et al. 1986).

Medicine Scurvy, a disease marked by spongy gums, loosening of the teeth, and bleeding into the skin and mucous membranes, is caused by a lack of ascorbic acid (vitamin C). Scurvy grass was used a great deal in former times on sea voyages to prevent scurvy. It was considered to be stimulating, a tonic and appetizer, and an agent promoting urine flow, and was also used to treat paralysis and rheumatism (Grieve 1931).

In France, the medicinal use of scurvy grass became quite popular in 1987, following favourable press reports, and the value increased from US$4.00/kg to $20.00/kg (Verlet 1990).

Nutrition Scurvy grass leaves are quite rich in ascorbic acid, hence the historical use as an antiscorbutic. According to Jacobsen (1994), it also has appreciable vitamin E, and is also rich in minerals, especially manganese.

In the 1700's, before the British navy issued lime juice (with limited benefit) to combat scurvy, mariners commonly used scurvy grass to prevent scurvy. Unfortunately, they usually did not appreciate that the benefit was mainly in the fresh herb, and they collected and stowed large bales of dried herb (Angier 1978).

General notes. The generic name Cochlearia comes from the Greek cochlear, a spoon, in reference to the spoon-shaped basal leaves, which also are responsible for the common name of spoonwort. However, in Europe the basal rosette leaves of C. officinalis (as opposed to the leaves on the stem) are typically heart-shaped, not spoon-shaped as in the closely related C. anglica L. (Wyse Jackson, personal communication, 1999).

Huxley et al. (1992) noted that, as might be expected with such a widespread plant, Cochlearia officinalis s.l. is very variable, having races with different chromosome numbers, and requiring taxonomic study (Scoggan 1979, Rich 1991).

Elven et al. (2005) noted that the name 'C. officinalis' is connected to the tetraploids. In an arctic context, these are restricted to, and exclusively in, mainland northwestern Europe, whereas all other areas (including ours) have diploids. The arctic diploids differ from the tetraploids in very few characters, the most pronounced being (1) smaller flowers, and (2) lack of the distinct honey smell of C. officinalis. Elven et al. (2003) observed that it is disputed whether all arctic diploids belong within one species. However, plants from Svalbard, Iceland, Greenland, northernmost arctic North America, and northernmost arctic Siberia conform morphologically with C. groenlandica. Elven et al. (2005) suggested that this taxon should be accepted at the level of species; we use this name here. The arguments in favour of a species solution are as follows: (a) consistent ploidy difference (2n = 14 verses 2n = 24); (b) total reproductive barrier; no hybrids or intermediates have ever been documented; (c) indications that the tetraploid C. officinalis is either an auto- or an allopolyploid from diploid parental species (European ones) fully different from C. groenlandica; (d) consistent morphological differences, albeit small ones; and (e) parapatric to nearly allopatric ranges.

Scurvy grass is a biennial, rarely a perennial, although normally cultivated as an annual. In its first year it forms a low rosette (basal cluster) of leaves. In the spring of the second year, it produces a flowering stalk about 30 cm in height with small white flowers. The plant continues to flower into summer. Dwarfed plants may have stems that are only 5 cm long, while the stems of robust plants may be as long as 35 cm (Rollins 1993).

Maessen et al. (1983) studied resource allocation strategies for a range of vascular plant species growing in a High Arctic lowland oasis, located adjacent to Alexandra Fjord, Ellesmere Island, and Nunavut. Species as Cochlearia and Draba (groenlandica) oblongata, which occupied disturbed habitats, had a large proportion of resources allocated to sexual reproductive tissue.

Illustrations. • Habitat. Flowering plant in second year of growth. N.W.T., Banks Island, Aulavik National Park, Thompson River. 11 July, 1999. Aiken 99–048. CAN. • Close-up of plant. Plant in second year of growth with procumbent flowering inflorescences, pink, reddish, and green sepals, and white petals. Leaves somewhat succulent. N.W.T., Banks Island, Aulavik National Park, Thomsen river. 11 July, 1999. Aiken 99–048. CAN. • Plant habit. Plants growing on beaches and dunes. N.W.T., Banks Island, Sachs Harbour. 25 July, 1981. J.M. Gillett 18820. CAN. • Close-up of plant. Drawing by Mrs. S. Bergh and Mrs. L. Barstad based on a collection from Svalbard, Nordenskiöld Land, Green Harbour ardeborg. 15 July, 1924. J. Lid. (as C. officinalis, det. C. groenlandica, R. Elven 1998). O 208833. With permission of the Botanical Museum, University of Oslo, Norway. • Close-up of flowers. Flowers showing sepals that are purplish on the outside and white inside, four white petals surrounding six anthers and one central stigma. Note the semi-succulent leaf. N.W.T., Banks Island, Aulavik National Park. 11 July, 1999. Aiken 99–048. CAN. • Arctic Island Distribution.

This publication is available on the internet (posted May 2011) and on CD-ROM (published in 2007). These versions are identical in content, except that the errata page for CD-ROM is accessible on the main index page of the web version.

Recommended citation for the web-based version of this publication: Aiken, S.G., Dallwitz, M.J., Consaul, L.L., McJannet, C.L., Boles, R.L., Argus, G.W., Gillett, J.M., Scott, P.J., Elven, R., LeBlanc, M.C., Gillespie, L.J., Brysting, A.K., Solstad, H., and Harris, J.G. 2007. Flora of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago: Descriptions, Illustrations, Identification, and Information Retrieval. NRC Research Press, National Research Council of Canada, Ottawa. http://nature.ca/aaflora/data, accessed on DATE.

Recommended citation for the CD-ROM version of this publication: Aiken, S.G., Dallwitz, M.J., Consaul, L.L., McJannet, C.L., Boles, R.L., Argus, G.W., Gillett, J.M., Scott, P.J., Elven, R., LeBlanc, M.C., Gillespie, L.J., Brysting, A.K., Solstad, H., and Harris, J.G. 2007. Flora of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago: Descriptions, Illustrations, Identification, and Information Retrieval. [CD-ROM] NRC Research Press, National Research Council of Canada, Ottawa.