Waterleaf is an interesting edible wild plant that does not get a lot of attention in the wild food media. The local species I know is Fendler’s waterleaf (Hydrophyllum fendleri), a native perennial that grows from Colorado’s Front Range west, in damp to moist soil mostly from the plains to the middle elevations.
This is a fuzzy plant, from leaves to ball-shaped flower heads. The leaves are pinnately divided, which means instead of individual leaflets, they appear as if someone cut them out of a larger leaf with scissors, paring them into deep lobes whose valleys arrive nearly at the leaf stem but not all the way. They are also serrated and irregularly toothed. The leaf stems are succulent and crunchy.
Waterleaf starts in a rosette of long-petioled basal leaves. In our local H. fendleri, there can be quite a few leaves radiating up and out in their arching fashion. The flower stem, when it develops, is also fuzzy and crunchy-good. The plant bears ball-shaped fuzzy green bud clusters, often but not always paired in groups of two. The flowers that emerge from these fuzzy balls range from white to purplish, and are distinctive in that the stamens are longer than the bell-shaped, 5-segmented flowers. They are similar in this regard to Phacelias, to which they are related.
Fendler’s waterleaf can get several feet tall. This is one of the features that distinguishes it from the related ballhead waterleaf (Hydrophyllum capitatum), also found in Colorado. Ballhead waterleaf is another edible plant. It is shorter, found on the Western Slope, and bears its ball-shaped flowers under its fuzzy foliage.
Sam Thayer provides an overview on other edible species of waterleaf in The Forager’s Harvest (2006). Virginia waterleaf (H. virginianum), of the Northeast and Midwest, has similar, deeply-lobed leaves. When young, it has watermark-like stains on the young leaves; these stains disappear as the plant matures and the leaves turn darker green. He recommends harvesting 1 leaf per rosette of 2-4 leaves so as not to cause undue stress to this perennial plant. Some species are protected, including H. virginianum in Connecticut, New Hampshire, Kentucky, and Tennessee; broad waterleaf (H. canadense) in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Vermont; and large waterleaf (H. macrophyllum) in Maryland and Pennsylvania (USDA). Other Western species include California waterleaf (H. occidentale) and Pacific waterleaf (H. tenuipes).
It’s best to collect waterleaf only where it’s plentiful. I like to gather a couple leaves from robust plants or 1-2 leaves from smaller plants and then move on to the next, spreading out the harvest. I’ve found Fendler’s waterleaf along creeks in Kittredge, Morrison, and Centennial; in one case it was an area a homeowner intended to cut back. In another foothills spot the waterleaf not only thrived creekside but also spread up the side of the steep, muddy hillside, covering at least a half-acre of land if not more as willows and cottonwoods gave way to chokecherry. There it certainly seemed okay to harvest some handfuls for culinary experiments. I often find it thriving in the company of stinging nettles under willows and poison hemlock too.
There’s no getting around the fact that Fendler’s waterleaf is fuzzy. However, the leaves are delicate, so thrown into soup or chopped into quiches, I don’t object to the texture, and instead appreciate how these mild-flavored leafy greens balance the strong flavors of other greens. I once had fun rough-chopping a bunch and tossing it into a pan of Italian sausage just before serving. Later the leftovers found their way—combined with curly dock (Rumex crispus) and onions and bread that I recycled into bread crumbs—into some baked stuffed tomatoes the next night. The wild-goodness-filled stuffing was great with the caramelized tomatoes.
Waterleaf is a fun plant to learn, whether or not it finds its way into your seasonal kitchen. If you have a bunch of it growing by you, why not give it a try?