≡ Menu

Watercress in Winter

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…

{ 13 comments… add one }

  • Søren February 14, 2011, 9:09 pm

    What a lovely entry! I love watercress, and if it wasn’t for the fact that the stream behind our house is too narrow and I spend enough time clearing its flow as it is, I’d definitely give it a go as a garden plant.

  • Sylvia (England) February 15, 2011, 2:08 am

    Pomona, a lovely post. Our last house was very near to disused watercress beds (shallow ponds really but they always call them beds!). These ponds are now loved by wild life especially birds. But the cress gets into the streams and clogs them up, if they are not cleared regularly then they can cause or add to flooding problems. This is one place I would encourage foraging, two jobs in one, clear the streams (without heavy diggers which widen them and decrease the flow of water) and healthy food.

    Best wishes Sylvia (England)

  • Cyd February 17, 2011, 8:50 am

    Great post as usual. Looks so delicious!

  • lula February 19, 2011, 7:43 am

    I love watercress, mostly eat them on salads, but thanks for the link to recipes.

  • Den Mother February 19, 2011, 1:31 pm

    We (the monsters and I) haven’t been to your blog in awhile! It’s good to be back. I love your writing and subject matter. I’ve been wanting to have a cress bed in our garden, but have never gotten around to it. I like what you say about wild plants.

  • James March 10, 2011, 9:18 pm

    That must have been a nice surprise to come upon the little patch of watercress in its little hot tub! For a couple years I bought cilantro, thinking it was watercress–I was sure the signs in the stores were wrong. But I finally got corrected and learned to enjoy the real watercress…

  • Andrea March 16, 2011, 10:25 pm

    Hi Pomona, i am new here, just followed Sylvia’s. That’s a wonderful photo. I eat watercress but i dont know how the plant looks like. It is amazing how it thrives on stolen conditions so different from the surroundings. So it could also be farmed in a tub on your own garden?

  • Garden March 18, 2011, 12:19 pm

    I’d love to see a picture of the contrast between the white snow and green plants.

  • Kai @ Folk Farm Daily April 3, 2011, 4:14 pm

    Wow, this is incredible information. A plant that would be great to put in any moist patches of land, and you can use it as soap! Thank you for sharing this.

  • Lisa and Robb May 7, 2011, 6:12 pm

    So, let me get this straight. You’re suggesting that there’s a better diet than beans and whiskey? I’m going to have to think about this….

    One of the most delicious meals I ever at was at a Chinese restaurant in Toronto. We had a glorious dish of sauted watercress. I’ve never had anything like it, before or since.

    Also, this post makes me think of “miner’s lettuce.”

  • juliebrisson January 13, 2012, 11:10 am

    To reply to Andrea’s question, yes, I’ve grown watercress in a flower pot with a clay drip catcher. Just water from both the bottom and the top. Prefers cool weather; not South louisiana’s 98 degree summertime!

  • hannah August 12, 2012, 12:31 pm

    wow what a great website I love it!

  • jessy April 24, 2015, 2:51 am

    Will the watercress do well in winter , because we are in autumn now

Leave a Comment

Next post:

Previous post: