Wintercress is a common field plant and weed to many, whichgoes into a vegetative state during the cold season and then comes roaring backto life when temperatures rise. It is a prolific grower, and because of this,you might wonder if you can eat wintercress greens. Read on to find out if wintercressis edible.
Yes, you can eat wintercress greens. In fact, it was apopular potherb generations ago, and with the advent of modern foraging, it isregaining that popularity once again. Back in the day, wintercress greens werecalled “creasies” and were a valuable source of nutrition during cool monthswhen other greens had died back.
There are actually a couple of different types of wintercress.Most of the plants you come across are commonwintercress (Barbarea vulgaris). Another species goes by the namesearly wintercress, creasy greens, scurvy grass or uplandcress (Barbarea verna) and isfound from Massachusetts southward.
B. vulgaris can befound further north than B. verna, asfar up as Ontario and Nova Scotia and south to Missouri and Kansas.
Wintercress can be found in disturbed fields and alongroadsides. In many regions, the plant grows year round. Seeds germinate in thefall and develop into a rosette with long, lobed leaves. The leaves are readyto harvest at any time, though older leaves tend to be quite bitter.
Because the plant thrives during mild winter weather, it wasoften the only green vegetable available to the settlers and is extremely highin vitamins A and C, hence the name “scurvy grass.” In someareas, wintercress greens can be harvested as early as late February.
The raw leaves are bitter, especially mature leaves. Tomitigate the bitterness, cook the leaves and then use them as you would spinach.Otherwise, mix the leaves in with other greens to tame the bitter flavor orsimply harvest new, young leaves.
In the late spring to early summer, wintercress flower stemsbegin to grow. Harvest the top few inches of the stems prior to the blossomsopening, and eat them like rapini.Boil the stems for a few minutes first to remove some of the bitterness andthen sauté them with garlic and olive oil and finish them with a squeeze oflemon.
Another wintercress use is eating the flowers. Yes, thebright yellow flowers are also edible. Use them fresh in salads for a pop ofcolor and flavor, or as a garnish. You can also dry the blooms and steep themto make a naturally sweet tea.
Once the blooms are spent, but beforethe seeds drop, harvest the spent blossoms. Collect the seeds and use themeither to sow more plants or for use as a spice. Wintercress is a member of themustard family and the seeds can be used in much the same way as mustardseed.
Barbarea vulgaris also known as wintercress, bittercress and yellow rocket is one of the first plants to come up in the Spring where I live around Minnesota and Wisconsin, and it’s an ok, widely available edible to know. Along with bergamot / Monarda fistulosa, it was also one of the first plants I ever knew, almost instinctively, that I could eat. Don’t let the name fool you though, although the leaves do resemble different species of cress, the flavor is quite different. I’m trying to be kind to the plant here, but everything I say should be prefaced by the fact that I don’t eat tons of this plant, since there’s a lot of greens I like more. Bittercress is ok as a cooking green in my opinion, and just ok.
Even before I had my first foraging guidebook, I understood a few things about plants. Although I didn’t know a lot, I knew was that there were a lot of plants with leaves that looked like carrots I should avoid (still do) and many that looked like arugula or some kind of mustard, of which any and all would be edible, even if I couldn’t pin them down to species (still true). Barbarea vulgaris is in the Brassicaeae family, making it a cousin to mustard greens, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage–you’ll taste a bit of it’s familial heritage when you nibble a leaf. Along with the brassicaceous flavor, you’re also going to taste something else too: bitterness.
Bittercress, notice the small leaves and upright flower stalks
Hairy bittercress(Cardamine hirsuta) and similar species such as pennsylvania bittercress (Cardamine pensylvanica) are small annual or biennial herbs that are prolific native plants in almost every state in the US. It is a winter annual so it germinates in the fall, stays alive throughout the winter then flowers and puts out seed in the spring. Despite the name it is usually not bitter, It’s a delicious herb and the best part, its free, you can find it almost anywhere.
Edibility and Culinary Use
The leaves and flower stalks can be eaten raw or cooked. The root can be grated and used as a flavoring. The flavor of this plant is similar to broccoli rabe but much milder. Take a look at this Spicy Bittercress Sautee Recipe. Bittercress is an often overlooked wild edible, but the herby flavor can add some spice to any type of food.
Being in the brassica family bittercress has many health benefits. It contains glucosinolates which are known to help remove carcinogens from the body. It also contains, vitamin C, beta-carotine, and possibly lutein which is known to help reduce vision problems including cataracts.
Key ID Features
Bittercress is a lawn weed that is green early in the spring and late in the fall. This is when it is easiest to spot. Here is a list of some of the identifying features of this plant:
1) Circular to 3-lobed small leaves toward the base of the plant which are arranged in a very orderly row along the stem. narrower leaves toward the upper part of the flower stalk which are also arranged in an orderly row along the stem.
2) Leaves and stems come from a single point.
3) Flower stalks with small white flower clusters which turn into small elongated seed pods later in the year.
The best way to identify a plant like this is once you think you have found it, pull it up by the roots and bring it inside to compare to this picture or other pictures from credible sources.
This small plant can make a big impact for anyone who loves to forage for wild food, or anyone who wants to add another herb to their pantry. It is easy to spot once you know what to look for, and very easy to harvest since there is usually an abundance of plants in one area. Next time your walking through your lawn or garden in the spring or late fall, look for Bittercress, and try a little, you might like it.
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When foraging for winter cress it is best to focus your search alongside rivers, creeks and areas with particularly moist soil. The tell-tale yellow flowers will usually be the most recognisable feature that catches your eye.
You can generally pick winter cress leaves throughout the year, but spring and summer are usually the best seasons. Older plants are likely to have tougher leaves, so choosing newer leaves in spring and summer will provide you with the best yield. During the winter, winter cress can be picked, however it lies dormant, so be sure not to over harvest.
Winter cress next to a river (Barbarea vulgaris) (Photo by AnRo0002 on Wikimedia Commons)
The plant is said to possess anti-carcinogenic (anti-cancer) properties. Cherokee Indians used a tea brewed from the aerial parts as a blood purifier. It is also used as an appetite stimulator (bitter greens). Europeans used poulticed leaves to treat wounds.
Winter Cress also works as a mild antitussive (cough suppressor), a bitter (aids digestion), and may have a slight diuretic effect (helps get rid of excess water).
As always, any medical information is for informational purposes only. Always exercise caution when using any wild plants, as allergic reactions and drug interactions are rare but may happen. Always make sure to clearly identify your plants and harvest from a clean area. Visit this post to see my favorite wildcrafting books.
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