What this Bitter Herb: Sonchus, Lactuca and Centaurea

Published: June 27th, 2010 | Updated: 17/01/15

I drank with thirst the information on plants of the Bible and the Mishna as given to me by Nogah Hareuveni. He was my teacher and commander while I served as an instructor for “Field Education” in the army. I knew the plants mentioned in the Mishna, but their cultural link to our ancestors’ life and to ours was revealed to me by Nogah. After learning the basic information, I used to use this comprehension when teaching the field army units “Field Education”. In the 1980’s I received a letter sent from an American woman living in Canada, Jo Ann Gardner, to the Department of Botany at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The secretary of our department transferred Mrs. Gardner’s letter to me. There was one essential question there: what are the names of the “bitter herbs” that may serve as MAROR in the SEDER of Passover?

I instantly answered in a letter mentioning the values I learnt from Nogah Hareuveni. My letter was answered in a longer letter and my reply became similarly longer and longer. We became friends and during later years Jo Ann visited Israel and stayed in our home. We also stayed in her home in Canada for a few days, on our way to a sabbatical year in the U.S. I learnt from Jo Ann that the identity of the MAROR is not so simple and not automatically understood by everyone. She first wondered why Jews around the world, including Israelis, regard horseradish as the true bitter herb, as it does not grow in Israel and its neighbors at present nor did it grow in the past. Horseradish, Armorarcia macrocarpa, is a perennial plant of the [Cruciferae], with a thick root. One may assume that using it is a relatively new practice (when 3000 years of history are considered as such).

Let us therefore read in the Passover Hagadda: “This bitter herb (maror), why do we eat it? – Because of bitterness the Egyptians gave to our forefathers in Egypt”. In the Gmara (Pesakhim, page 39/a) we read: “Why were the Egyptians compared to bitter herbs? To tell you that these herbs have a soft beginning and a hard end, so the Egyptians treated the Israelites softly at first and terminated in a hard way”. In the Mishna (Pesakhim, chapter B/6) we read: “In which greenery one fulfils his duty to eat Maror in Passover? – in khazeret (possibly horseradish), olashin ([Cichorium]), tamkha and kharkhavina ([Eryngium]) and maror. They should be consumed fresh or dried but not pickled and not cooked”. In another ancient writing ‘hardoufnin’ ([Scorzonera]) is also mentioned as a kind of bitter herb.

There are different opinions concerning the identity of what is called “maror” in Hebrew in the Israeli floras ([Sonchus]). This name was provided to the genus by the committee for the Hebrew Language (1929). Uria Feldmann writes in his book Plants of the Mishna, page 198: “It is not possible that maror is Sonchus…” he adds to the identification question and writes that a few lettuce species or varieties may be regarded as maror. The observations of Ilan Zaharoni (personal communication), who saw the Passover Sacrifice of the Samarians on Mt. Grizim, supports the use of [Sonchus oleraceus] as maror (Figs. 13.1.1-13.1.3). Dror Tzedaka, of the famous Samarians family, writes in his blog of May 19, 2010, that [Lactuca serriola] functions as their maror in Passover; he uses the photographs of our website to decorate his statement (Fig. 13.1.4-13.1.7).

Fig. 13.1.1: Sonchus oleraceus with a remnant of the leaf rosette and beginning of inflorescence-carrying branches.

Fig. 13.1.2: When a young stem or leaf is cut, a milky resin exudes.

Fig. 13.1.3: Sonchus oleraceus an opened inflorescence.

Fig. 13.1.4: Lactuca serriola, blooming plants.

Fig. 13.1.5: When a young stem or leaf is cut, a milky resin exudes.

Fig. 13.1.6: Lactuca serriola, a young leaf rosette where the lower leaves are directed to all directions and the stem-leaves heading for north- and south-wards in a “compass” morphology.

Fig. 13.1.7: Lactuca serriola, a blooming plant, a ripe inflorescence just before achene dispersal.

Of the species mentioned above I am going to deal with a few species which I personally like. The plants I deal with have a similar life cycle in which large and soft winter leaves are replaced with small and tough summer leaves that are sometimes even thorny; these plants follow the Gmara by having a soft beginning and stiff end. The Arabic name for [Centaurea] species, which offer large leaves that are cooked, is “mourar” (mar = bitter). The Hebrew name is “dardar” expressing the concentric circles formed by the leaf lobes in their leaf rosette (Figs. 13.1.8, 13.1.9). I once gave a “Field Education” day to Druze soldiers from a special unit. The training area was near Bat-Shlomo.

Fig. 13.1.8: Centaurea palescens, a leaf rosette.

Upon arriving to the field the Druze soldiers suggested that this time they would teach me. They went to the field and returned after a short while with their “harvest”. There was a pile of [Centaurea iberica] (mourar) and a few plants of [Allium ampeloprasum] (toum barri = wild garlic; Fig. 13.1.10). After boiling the well rinsed leaves for a few minutes, the pot was removed from the fire and the water containing bitter substances was poured off. New fresh water was added to the cooked leaves, boiled again and the leaves were ready for the next step. Meanwhile, the “garlic” leaves fragments were fried in another pot and until browning, and then mixed with the cooked [Centaurea] leaves for a few more minutes of cooking. In the field conditions we were in, we achieved a good dish made in the Druze style. The process of removal of the bitterness from the [Centaurea] leaves is mentioned in the Mishna; the bitter herbs should not be cooked in the way my Druze teachers did. The event with the Druze soldiers was not related to Passover but became associated with my insight on our history.

Fig. 13.1.9: Centaurea iberica, a leaf rosette.

Fig. 13.1.10: Allium ampeloprasum at a stage ready to being cooked and seasoning food made of Centaurea and other plants.

Let us extend our account to additional [Centaurea] species that are worth cooking and eating. These are [Centaurea procurrens] (Figs. 13.1.11-13.1.13), [“Centaurea hyalolepis” C. hyalolepis] (Figs. 13.1.14-13.1.16) and [“Centaurea pallescens” C. pallescens] (Figs. 13.1.17-13.1.19). It is possible that other species in this genus may be eaten after cooking, but one should get better information beforehand. At the beginning of their life cycle, [Centaurea] species have large and soft leaves in a rosette and may be consumed. At the end of the growth season, there is but a little bit of green color and the small leaves occur near stiff thorns (Figs. 13.1.20, 13.1.21).

Fig. 13.1.11: Centaurea procurrens, a leaf rosette.

Fig. 13.1.12: Centaurea procurrens, hairs arranged as of a spider-web among the involucral bracts of the inflorescence.

Fig. 13.1.13: Centaurea procurrens, an opened inflorescence.

Fig. 13.1.14: Centaurea hyalolepis, beginning of flowering.

Fig. 13.1.15: Centaurea hyalolepis, inflorescence.

Fig. 13.1.16: Centaurea hyalolepis, yellow-blooming as well.

Fig. 13.1.17: Centaurea pallescens, a leaf rosette.

Fig. 13.1.18: Centaurea pallescens, beginning of flowering.

Fig. 13.1.19: Centaurea pallescens, flowering.

Fig. 13.1.20: Centaurea iberica, flowering.

Fig. 13.1.21: Centaurea iberica, flowering.