Friday, March 2, 2012

Pacific Waterleaf, our first spring veggie

Long rhizomes like this are near the surface and don't really require a digging stick.
The Pacific Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum tenuipes) is flourishing and, as promised earlier this week, I set out to experiment with this little know wild green.  In the Bellingham area, I find Pacific Waterleaf growing on the north slopes of the Chuckanut Mountains in loose wet soil under Bigleaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum), Red Alder (Alnus rubra) and Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis).   Waterleaf is our first wild green of the season and rapidly grows from perennial roots and rhizomes when the temperatures are warm enough to grow, during the period after the dark of winter and before the deciduous trees and shrubs above it leaf out.  I suspect Waterleaf may grow in areas with near surface groundwater flow, which may provide a thermal buffer against the effect of freezing weather on the early growth of the plants.  Erna Gunther reported that the Cowlitz broke up Waterleaf rhizomes and ate them so Katrina and I set to out harvest and eat some.

Radial rhizome growth around a perennial Waterleaf root stalk
We found a healthy population of Waterleaf growing under Bigleaf Maple with some 2” tall Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica).  Pealing back the Maple leaf litter and detritus revealed the rhizomatous nature of Waterleaf colonies.  Clumpy knots of long tapered roots send radial rhizomes outward in search of new ground to colonize.  We found that we could easily snap the rhizomes away from the root clusters.  Rhizome growth appeared to be the longest on the colony edges, and some individuals near the center had no discernible rhizome at all, which leads me to suspect that a little disturbance of the colony matrix may actually stimulate rhizome growth.  We picked several dozen rhizomes (with leaves) and rinsed them in a nearby stream.  Back home, I noticed that the residual water in my collecting bag had been stained red.  Perhaps the rhizomes could also be used as a dye plant.

The raw rhizomes and a single leaf of Pacific Waterleaf
Green vegetables!  Steamed rhizomes (left) and leaves (right)
Raw, Waterleaf rhizomes have a nice juicy crunch with a bland flavor reminiscent of soil.  I set out to separate the leaves from the rhizomes while nibbling along the way, and discovered that the white petioles are even better.  They share the same refreshing crunch as the rhizomes but have a cleaner flavor.  The rest of the leaf is mild tasting and makes an acceptable addition to a salad, if you don’t mind the fuzzy texture.  We steamed Waterleaf greens for 5 minutes and served them with smoked sea salt and were delighted to find the texture and flavor to be strikingly similar to Stinging Nettles.  The steamed rhizomes also have a nice flavor and a texture like bok choy.  The best flavor is near the growing end of the rhizome where the scales are still white.  Towards the base of the rhizome, where the scales and stem are brown, the rhizome assumes a strong flavor and tough, stringy texture.  We have eaten Pacific Waterleaf for the last two nights and thoroughly enjoyed the chance to jump-start our wild green season with a passable alternative to Stinging Nettles.

Note: Pacific Waterleaf is Red Listed in British Columbia.

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