“What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.”
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Welcome to the first Wonderfully Wild post of 2016! If you missed the rest of the series, posted throughout the past year, you can find it here. Do pop over for a read. It's worth your while!
Wonderfully Wild is designed to share with you some thoughts on using wild, foraged plants in your family's meals and medicines. Plants that offer us so much more than their cultivated counterparts!
The series written in real-time as the season unfolds. Nothing overwhelming or too technical, but just some simple herbs and roots and fruits you can enjoy to get your feet wet (sometimes literally!) with wild edibles and medicinals.
Today we're exploring one of the earliest wild edibles of spring: watercress.
Watercress (Nasturtium officinale)
Watercress has a flavor you don't soon forget. Spunky and peppery; spicy yet cooling; juicy and satisfying. I've been foraging watercress since we moved to the Driftless in 2006 and I can't get enough of this zippy green.
Native to Asia and Europe, watercress is found throughout much of the world. It grows in almost every state in the US and most Canadian provinces. While find safe foraging places in some areas will be tricky, if you have access to cold, clean spring water chances are you'll find watercress.
Though watercress can be foraged year round, in early spring the flavor is divine. (After the summer heat comes on the plants grow leggier, and with their added height comes a heat that we don't enjoy as much as the tender springtime leaves.)
Why forage watercress?
First, it's fun to forage. Pull on your muck boots and head out for the springs and cold water creeks in your area! Even in late winter and early spring when there is still snow on the ground, watercress will be leafy and green and ready for harvest.
Watercress is also nutritious (containing a healthy dose of vitamins A, B6, and C; also calcium, folate, manganese, and riboflavin). And with that distinct, peppery bite it's a flavor powerhouse.
To identify watercress in the field we'll look for it's key distinguishing characteristics. Use the photographs above as a guide.
Habitat: Watercress grows in clean, clear, cold springs, streams, and spring ponds in shallow water.
Important safety note: Harvest only plants from streams that are free of farm field run-off, as watercress from polluted creeks can harbor harmful pathogens including liver fluke. I have found plentiful watercress that I will not harvest becasue either I don't know what's upstream or I am unsure of how clean the water is. I harvest watercress from springs only (and near to the source) to ensure a clean and healthy harvest.
Growth: Watercress grows in rosette-shape in clusters of plants. As it grows it becomes a tangle of plants, growing just under or on top of the shallow water. As the season progresses the plants reach up and out of the water and small white four-petaled flowers will emerge. Pulling a plant from the water you will find a tangle of tender white roots emerging from the stem and between the leaves.
Leaves: Watercress leaves are compound with thee to nine leaflets per stem. Leaflets are approximately 1 inch across and oval to heart-shaped. Leaflets are arranged opposite along the stem with a larger terminal leaflet at the end. There is occasional maroon veining at the center of the leaf.
Think of watercress as arugala's wild little cousin. Enjoy in salads, sandwiches, soups, and sauces - anywhere a bright, peppery flavor would be welcome.
Watercress pesto is a long-time favorite way to enjoy this zippy flavor. My recipe follows!
How to Harvest
Watercress pulls easily from the loose, wet ground. Some people pull the entire plant and bring it home to process, however I find this not only reduced the amount of watercress available in my foraging area but makes my job much harder once I get home to the kitchen. Bring a pair of scissors with you (or use your fingers) and snap off the cress just below the water's surface. This will both protect the plant and reduce your work.
Watercressto (Pesto) Recipe
Serve on new potatoes, zucchini noodles, or your favorite pasta. Or spread on a sandwich, add to an egg bake, or spread on a pizza. The possibilities are endless!
Watercressto freezes well, so make extra and freeze in ice cube trays or flattened zip bags.
- 4 C washed watercress leaves (stems removed)
- 3 Tbsp olive oil
- 3 Tbsp toasted sunflower seeds
- 1 clove garlic, crushed or chopped
- Salt to taste
Carefully wash watercress to remove any leaves, sand, or grit. Pick through your leaves carefully to remove twigs or dead leaves. Rinse carefully one more time to ensure you have removed all dirt.
Transfer ingredients to food processor. Pulse to combined and until nearly smooth. Adjust seasoning and serve.
Note: If the flavor of watercress is too spicy for you or your children, replace 1/3 to 1/2 of watercress with spinach.