Money doesn’t grow on trees.
It does, however, grow from flowering plants — if you know where to look. Brilliant purple four-petalled flowers tell of riches to come. Lunaria, also known as money plant, is blooming in its early spring glory. Notice it along Barnes Road, just past Featherstone, and along many developed lanes, likely having escaped from gardens and yards. You also might see its lookalike, dame’s rocket, but pay close attention to the leaves. Heart-shaped leaves are on the money, while oblong leaves belong to the dame.
Money plant is not a recent wash-ashore. A native of Europe, it was brought to this country by colonists who knew it to be edible and ornamental (Thomas Jefferson grew money plant at Monticello). After the flowers fade, round, flat pods or seed cases emerge, which dry into those familiar translucent, round discs. You may know this plant through its aliases, which include Chinese coins, silver dollar, honesty, satin flower, or moonwort.
This money is not the root of all evil. It is, in fact, the root for a foraged meal. Before the plant flowers, its root is edible and can be consumed raw or cooked. Since it is a member of the Brassicaceae family and a relative of broccoli, mustard, kale, collards and cauliflower, it is not surprising that the leaves, too, can be eaten. Note that they have a bit of heat to them.
Nor should the seeds be ignored; they are spicy and can be used like mustard seeds. The oil found in the seeds contains nervonic acid, a fatty acid that is important in the biosynthesis of nerve cell myelin. This compound is being investigated as a treatment for multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s.
If you didn’t notice this plant last year, this is not due to poor observation skills. Money plant is a biennial. Joseph Breck, in his 1851 book The Flower Garden, described the plant well: “Honesty is an old-fashioned plant, flowering the second year from seed, and then dying. It produces large purple flowers in May and June, that are succeeded by large elliptical pods, which, when dry, are rather ornamental. Lunaria is from luna, the moon, an allusion to the broad, round, silvery pods or silicles.”
Flower arrangers are over the moon over these decorative pods. To use them, harvest the pods in August. Cut the entire stem of the plant and hang bunches upside down in a cool, dark place. Once dry, they can last for years.
Gardeners love this plant, too, as do long-tongued bees and butterflies, which will be treated to an early spring sip of syrup from their flowers. The caterpillar of the cabbage white butterfly will feed on money plant’s foliage. Rabbits, though, aren’t enticed, so it is a good choice to thwart the bunnies.
For its wealth of uses, honesty is the best policy and the right plant to choose. Pity the poor souls that don’t cash in on this early spring currency.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.