Red-wing blackbirds are back, creating a riot at my bird feeders. The snowdrops are about to bloom. Sap is running. Wild watercress, now growing in our muddy streams, is a respite for our winter-weary eyes. In the midst of the brown, winter-matted grasses, we can now find islands of vibrant green watercress—some of the first, green tendrils of spring to appear. This past weekend, John, my husband, and I took a walk with my friend Becky to check for the patches of watercress that have always grown downstream from the spring house on her family’s old farm in Pea Brook. As a semi-aquatic herb, watercress prefers slow-moving streams and alkaline waterways.
Every year I say we should go looking for it there, but then it is too cold or there is too much snow to trudge up the hill to the old homestead. I don’t want to leave my nest of afghans and pillows on the couch. But this year we finally got there, and I picked a few handfuls of the sharp-tasting little green to eat.
Native to Asia and Europe, watercress is one of our oldest wild edible greens. It has been valued for its nutritional and medicinal value for centuries. The Greek physician, Hippocrates, is said to have built his first hospital near a stream filled with watercress so that he could have a ready supply to treat his patients. It has been claimed to treat baldness, migraines and insanity. Due to its high vitamin C content, it was taken on long journeys and eaten to prevent scurvy. The plant has been grown commercially since the 1800s and is a favorite ingredient in British cooking.
My daughter Lily’s connection to watercress comes from reading E.B. White’s children’s novel “The Trumpet of the Swan.” She fondly remembers the part when the swan, Louis, orders watercress sandwiches from room service at a hotel in Boston. He really only wants the watercress to eat and sends back the bread and butter.
Lily did not go on our walk but did, in fact, stay home, curled up on the couch. However, she did try a nibble of the greens I brought home. When foraging for wild watercress, (Nasturtium officianale—not to be confused with nasturtium flowers) always be sure that the stream that it is growing in is not polluted. Always wash plants well before eating. Make sure you have the right plant, as there are many species that can be confused for watercress.
It was a beautiful day to explore the old farm. In the debris of the spring house, John found an old, junked mimeograph machine (remember the scent of the freshly copied pages?) and an old sap bucket for collecting maple syrup that he can use in his social studies classes at school for “What is it Wednesday” (a guessing game for students involving old artifacts). I took photos of the spring house, the old farmhouse and the twisted, old apple trees. We stopped to see the ruined foundations of the family’s original log cabin built nearby. I remembered the hops that grew by the old ice house. I remembered the afternoons I spent visiting with these old friends and neighbors. And I finally went out and found the watercress.