Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Charlock as a famine food

Charlock, Sinapis arvensis, a yellow-flowered herb is common and widespread on disturbed ground, and is usually considered to be a ‘weed’, but it was formerly used as a food during times of famine.

Philip Skelton who investigated the plight of the poor Co. Donegal in 1757 noted: ‘in one cabin he found the people eating boiled prushia [charlock] by itself for breakfast, and tasted this sorry food which seemed nauseous to him’.  The next day he had prushia to be boiled for his breakfast, but after eating it for one or two days he was so disgusted by it that he ‘set off immediately for Ballyshannon to buy oatmeal for them’.

Early in the nineteenth century it was reported that poor people in Co. Kilkenny were often reduced to eating charlock and ‘a few other weeds’ in springtime.  And, even in the 1930s, it was remembered in Co. Donegal that during times of famine people ‘would walk for miles gathering stuff called presha.  This would bloom in the summer with a yellow blossom and people  would gather burdens and boil it’.

It has been suggested that the widespread use of charlock in times of famine ‘points back to a period when it had the status of a regular item of diet’.

Although it seems that in Ireland it was the foliage of charlock foliage that was eaten, in Scotland it seems that it was the seeds that were eaten during times of scarcity.  Thus, in 1884 it was noted: ‘for about three months of the year, when grain supplies had run out … any bread eaten was made from the seed of wild mustard or charlock, and was called “reuthie” bread – “reuth” being the local Orkney name for such seeds’.

Perhaps it is significant that recent writers on wild plants which can be foraged for human consumption make little mention of charlock.

Adapted from Vickery’s Folk Flora, 2019; where information on sources can be found.

Images:  Hillside Gardens Park, London Borough of Lambeth, July 2021.