Last summer I force fed myself winter cress—a wild mustard that grows all over the place, eventually flowering into splashes of fantastic fluorescent yellow.
Euell Gibbons includes a chapter on winter cress (Barbarea vulgaris, B. verna) in Stalking the Wild Asparagus (1962), where he describes its popularity among his Italian-American neighbors. “Where I live in suburban Philadelphia, the first sign of spring is not the returning wild geese winging high, nor the robins on the lawn,” he writes. “These harbingers are always preceded by the Italians, swarming out from town to gather Winter Cress from fields and ditches.”
Following that is a lengthy diatribe on how suburbanites are missing out on a good thing when, in their smug superiority over rummagers, they pay “exorbitant prices for tasteless greenhouse produce and week-old vegetables from Florida or California, and never realize that they have driven their station wagon past tons of much better vegetables on the way to the supermarket.” It makes me laugh to think how the opposite seems true today—foraging has become so damn sexy that now it’s the fancy people you always hear about doing it.
In any case, this image of people heading out in spring to gather winter cress as part of a long-held cultural tradition has captivated me for a while. So, I set out to learn the plant.
Knowing Winter Cresses
Winter cresses produce a basal rosette of leaves whose terminal lobe—the final lobe at the end of each leaf—is large in comparison to the smaller, opposite lobes that precede them, similar in form to baby arugula leaves.
From the rosettes emerge one or more ridged flower stems when the plants bolt. Flower bud clusters form early, then rise up with the growing stems, spreading apart into smaller bud clusters after that. The leaves clasp the stem and are borne alternately. They change in shape from their basal rosette form to somewhat arrowhead-shaped near the top, John Kallas explains in Edible Wild Plants (2010), which includes an entire chapter on winter cress. The small yellow flowers open next to the buds in racemes—the term for mustards’ characteristic squirrel-tail form—and the seedpods that follow are long, skinny, two-parted pods that dry out and break apart to drop their tiny seeds.
The winter cresses are so-called because they overwinter, going into a vegetative state in the cold season and then coming back to life when temperatures rise. In some regions, basal winter cress leaves can be foraged in late February and early March (Gibbons, 1962).
Much of the lower elevation winter cress (5,000-6,000 feet) here in Colorado has currently bolted as of this writing. A good deal of it is in flower already—which is a great way to locate it. I found a good field of winter cress a couple days ago, on May 6, in the floodplain of a creek in the Parker/Aurora area. The bright flowers helped me recognize it, and then, wandering through it, I found enough plants with unopened bud clusters to fill a grocery bag with the buds and attached soft stems.
Winter Cress Species
Two edible winter cresses are generally discussed in the wild food literature. One is the common winter cress (Barbarea vulgaris), which is found, sometimes in great abundance, in temperate zones throughout the world. Another is creasy greens or Belle Isle cress (B. verna), which has been cultivated for its greens but also occurs growing “wild” as an introduced species. It is most popular as an edible in the southeastern U.S., though it occurs throughout the eastern U.S. and also on the Pacific Coast (USDA). B. vulgaris has 2-4 pairs of smaller lobes under the terminal lobe, whereas creasy greens generally have more pairs of these small lobes.
In Colorado and regions west, we also have the native species B. orthoceras, referred to by the common name American winter cress. According to the USDA Plants Database, American winter cress is also found as a rare plant in northern New England, and occurs in a band of northern U.S. states and throughout Canada. Here in the Colorado high country where I live, the low rosettes of thick, rubbery, red-green leaves of what I believe to be B. orthoceras are due right around now (9,000-10,000 feet). I’ve eaten these too and plan to share more on that later once I confirm my tentative species-level identification.
Choking It Down
Once I learned to identify winter cresses, I started trying to eat them. I say “trying” because they have been so damn bitter. I prepared the young rosette greens of both low and high country winter cresses steamed and stir-fried, and each time the results were not just bad, they were inedible. I nibbled raw leaves and bud clusters too. This helped me understand where Oliver Perry Medsger was coming from when he penned this complaint against winter cress in 1939: “It has a bitterness that to me is not altogether pleasant.”
My friend Butter took to calling it “ickycress” after several unhappy tastings, which transmuted at some point to “nastycress.”
“To be edible, the leaves of winter cress must be gathered early, while the weather is still cold,” Gibbons writes. So that could have been part of my problem. However, even the high country leaves I gathered while tiny and purple still required eating with cream cheese and jam and a whole lot of positivity to tone down the bitterness–not only of the leaves but also my attitude.
Now I Freakin’ Love It
Well, as it turns out, all I had to do was boil the plant in an open pot to dispel the bitterness, a re-read of Kallas’ chapter revealed. Never mind the two boils in changes of water that some authors recommend if you can’t stomach the “dilute-leaves-with-other-ingredients” method for salads or stir fries. I find all I have to do is drop the winter cress into boiling water in an open pot for one or two minutes, rinse with cold water to stop the cooking, and then it’s ready for whatever preparation I want. And it’s very good!
Lately I’ve been using the unopened bud clusters and top 2 inches or so of soft stem, gathered in the plains and foothills around Denver. It’s slightly more bitter if the clusters have started to spread apart, but it’s nothing a dash of lemon juice can’t fix.
Unlike some of the other mustards I’ve been eating, winter cress leaves and stems are smooth instead of finely hairy. They are also thick and juicy. Truth be told, I really have come to crave winter cress. And I’m happy to have figured out another nice wild vegetable that is tasty, abundant, and practical to forage. It may also have health benefits, for it fits into the category of mustard greens, about which there has been a lot of hoopla in the media of late. If wild-foraged winter cress, too, is an antioxidant-rich superfood, then those old-school-Italians were onto more than just a flavorful spring vegetable. Snooty suburbanites take note—this a pastime well worth emulating!
“We’re having ickycress for dinner tonight,” I say to Gregg.
“I don’t think we should call it ‘ickycress’ anymore,” he says to me. Perhaps he’s right.