My favorite Watercress-picking spot surprised me this past summer. All of the Watercress disappeared. 3 years ago, I could barely see the stream because the Cress was so darn thick! The summer after that, I noticed it wasn’t as thick, but it was still plenty abundant. It was absolutely shocking this past summer to see nary a trace of it whatsoever……especially knowing that Watercress is considered invasive in Wisconsin. I don’t have a theory as to why it disappeared……the stream looks clear and clean, and no other plant is taking its place. I guess it just decided to move on.
A member of the mustard family, Watercress has the interesting latin name Nasturtium officinale. Interesting because the familiar flower we call Nasturtium has the same peppery taste as Watercress…..but they are not related!
One of the things I love about Watercress is that it can be harvested year ’round here in the Frozen North. It grows in spring-fed streams which stay open even in deep winter. In the summer, it gets big and lush, rising like green leafy clouds out of the stream, but in winter, it hunkers down and stays close to the water’s surface. There’s not as much to harvest in winter, but it is vibrant and green and growing…….things we crave in these cold months. Also, as an invasive plant, it is legal to harvest in public parks and such.
It tastes peppery and delicious. Some people will say that the leaves get bitter when it flowers in the summer, but I disagree. I eat this plant year-round, including the flowers and immature seed pods.
There is a tiny bit of caution around eating Watercress…..if it’s growing in water that contains manure – a stream in a pasture, for instance – there’s a chance that bacteria and parasites will be present and possibly cause you to regret eating Watercress. In his book “Incredible Wild Edibles”, Sam Thayer goes into great detail about these critters, if you are interested in learning more. Those bacteria and parasites are rare around these parts, and are absent in the winter. Cooking your cress rather than eating it raw will make it safe to eat in any season.
I don’t worry about it, and I always just rinse and soak my Watercress, pick out the nicest looking leaves and put it in a salad. Recently, however, I did get a Big Surprise in my harvest. After rinsing and soaking my winter-harvested Cress from a new-to-me location, I transferred the clump of Cress out of the soak water into another bowl, and started picking off luscious green leaves. And then……..I saw something squiggle. Hmmmm. Leaves don’t squiggle. I looked into the bowl containing the soak water. Squiggles. Lots of them. Urp! I may have freaked out a little. And then my curiosity got the best of me.
Leaving the bowl of squiggling Watercress alone for the moment, I concentrated on looking at the tiny wiggling grey-ish critters in the soak water. (Here is a link to a short video I took of them) They were the size of the white part on my clipped-short fingernails. They looked an awful lot like teeny-tiny shrimp. Right here I’m going to Shout Out to the Wisconsin Master Naturalist Volunteer Program, which I completed in 2018. Because of that training, I knew that in order to identify these tiny hitchhikers, I would search for Aquatic Invertebrates.
After looking at several sources, I landed on an amphipod called a ‘scud’…..or…wait for it….freshwater shrimp. One source says they are edible. I would like to tell you that I scooped them out and threw them onto my salad. I did not. In fact, the watercress that I finally picked through and set in the refrigerator is still waiting for me to be brave enough to eat it. Squiggles and all.