It might seem an odd time of year to be writing about watercress. It’s a thing we usually associate with summer: cress sandwiches, cress in the salad.
But at a mountain hot springs I found a little warm stream where watercress grows year-round. You can see frost sculptures on the grasses right next to it, but the watercress thrives. You can’t see the snow, because it doesn’t start until you get a bit away from the stream, but it’s there. Frozen hard.
This is one of the things I like about wild plants. They are opportunists. They live, on bare rock, in shade, in dry and very wet and inhospitable places – and they ask nothing of us. Although when I met up with this cress, I offered my appreciation for this brilliant green in a winter landscape, and I took a few leaves.
There’s something about wild food that’s unlike any other. It may have to do with the way the climates and soil and exposure shape the plant, and give it nutrients you often don’t find in cultivated ones. It may be that when you eat a wild plant, it connects you to the landscape you’re in.
The many Maidu who lived near that hot springs would not have had watercress in their diet, because watercress is a European plant. I have found it growing wild in more than one California stream, though. Probably it was brought here by gold miners looking to avoid scurvy. Or maybe it was brought by the many horticulturalists who followed the gold miners. Whoever brought it, it has settled in happily.
It would have helped with the scurvy many miners suffered from (they ate nothing but beans and whiskey, or close to it), as it’s high in C, as well as vitamin E and beta-carotene. For minerals, you have phosphorus, calcium and iron.
If you want to gather watercress yourself, remember that, while it only grows in flowing water, it will grow in polluted flowing water. So be sure the stream is clean. Juicy plants such as watercress and lettuce are chock-full of whatever pollutants and pesticides are in the ground and water, and I wish commercial lettuce growers would think of this.
Watercress is pretty easy to recognize, especially if you’re a gardener: it’s in the cabbage family, and it has the rounded leaves a lot of brassicas do. In the case of watercress, the leaves are strung on the arms of loose rosettes of the plant, which spread in all directions, lolling in water.
One of the easiest ways to recognize watercress, though is the taste: a peppery greenness that reminds you of its relative, nasturtium.
I’ve never had enough watercress to cook – I just eat a few leaves plain, or pick some to put on bread and butter – it’s classic. But some people like watercress soup, or watercress salad.
People get a little cultlike around watercress. There’s even a site dedicated solely to it. For those of you who have enough watercress to cook, watercress.com (the link will take you to the recipes page) offers suggestions on pasta soup, quiche, baked eggs, and a number of dishes so delicious-sounding that I may have to go and find a bigger patch of watercress…