Springtime is one of the best times of the year to forage for wild edibles. The tender new growth is usually at its most mild and flavorful at this time. Wintercress, watercress, and Pennsylvania bittercress are three members of the mustard family with intense flavors. From bitter mustard to peppery spice, these plants will stand out in a wild salad or dish of cooked greens.
Watercress (Nasturtium officinale)
This plant, found throughout North America, grows in moving water and has the hottest and most biting taste of these three plants. Look for small clumps of watercress hugging the water in clear, clean streams is the early spring. They will grow up to a foot tall later in the season. Look for the compound leaves to have between 3 and 9 leaflets, with the biggest leaflet at the end. Wash the leaves thoroughly and use in salad. For safer results, especially if the water is questionable (and all water should be considered questionable), steam the greens or make a cream-based watercress soup.
Pennsylvania bittercress (Cardamine pensylvanica)
Growing on dry land in the eastern part of the U.S., Pennsylvania bittercress is a small plant (never more than a foot tall) with 9 to 11 leaflets on its compound leaves. Contrary to the name, this plant is not that bitter, and it can make a great “mustardy” salad base. These tender leaves and stems can be eaten raw or cooked, but don’t delay. You’ll see them in April in most areas, and that’s about it for the year. These short-lived plants grow tiny white flowers with four petals, which give way to popping seed pods. After that, they are swallowed up by the growing grass of spring.
Wintercress (Barbarea vulgaris)
Prepare to give your taste buds a workout–wintercress is often intensely bitter. You might know this plant by other names like yellow rocket and creasy greens, depending on the part of the country in which you live (the plant is found in Montana and most states to the east). Wintercress has very shiny leaves, which are green to dark green in color. A common way to prepare these greens is to fry them in bacon fat. This is the biggest plant of our featured trio; the yellow flower stalks can reach three feet in height. Try the unopened flower buds as a snack or salad item. They look a lot like little broccoli heads, and are actually related to broccoli and the other cruciferous vegetables. Because of their bitter flavor, few folks eat the leaves and stems of this plant in a raw salad. Cook it a little, with some kind of oil, and it will taste much better.
Are these greens on your spring wild edible list? Tell us if you’ve had creasy greens or wild watercress in the comments.