Waterleaf is an interesting edible wild plant that does not get a lot of press 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 from 5,500 to 10,500 feet, according to Cattail Bob Seebeck’s textbook, Survival Plants (2012).
It is a fuzzy plant, from leaves to ball-shaped flowerheads. The leaves are pinnately divided—which means instead of having 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 (Seebeck, 2012). They are similar in this regard to Phacelias, to which they are related. Waterleaf might also be confused with Onosmodiums, which are also fuzzy. Or cutleaf coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) might be mistaken for some waterleafs, due to similarly lobed leaves (Thayer, 2006).
Fendler’s waterleaf can get pretty tall—up to 3 feet, Seebeck writes. This is one of the features that distinguishes it from the related ballhead waterleaf (Hydrophyllum capitatum), also found in Colorado. Ballhead waterleaf is a lower plant, found on the Western Slope, which bears its ball-shaped flowers under its fuzzy foliage. Its edibility uses are similar, Seebeck writes.
Samuel Thayer has a good account of a related, edible waterleaf in The Forager’s Harvest (2006). Virginia waterleaf (H. virginianum) 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 writes.
He recommends harvesting 1 leaf per rosette of 2-4 leaves so as not to cause undue stress to the perennial plant. He finds it to be abundant in northern Wisconsin where he is based, and enjoys it primarily as a trail snack
Some species of Hydrophyllum are on state protected species lists, 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)—so, it’s best to look but not taste in those locations.
“My least favorite,” Thayer said of H. macrophyllum, which he recently tracked down and tasted in Kentucky. “My favorite greens are of canadense, followed by appendiculatum, then virginianum, then macrophyllum” he said (personal communication, 2015).
Western species aside from those I already mentioned include California waterleaf (H. occidentale) and Pacific waterleaf (H. tenuipes).
Found in the Front Range
I have only gathered Fendler’s waterleaf from spots where it’s rather plentiful—where it grows in thick density covering an area the size of my kitchen or bigger. I gather a leaf or two from one plant and then move on to the next, spreading out the harvest. I usually just get a small bag full for a side dish or ingredient in a bigger dish, nothing major.
I’ve found Fendler’s waterleaf along dark and open creeks in Kittredge and Morrison; 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 a couple handfuls for culinary experiments.
Fendler’s waterleaf also grows on the left side of the bottom parking lot at Eldorado Canyon State Park near Boulder, so if you’re in the vicinity that would be a good place to observe it, keeping in mind foraging is not permitted in Colorado state parks.
Is Fuzzy a Quality You Like in Food? Fantastic!
“Some people object to the slightly dry and fuzzy feeling of the leaves in their mouths,” Thayer writes of his local Virginia waterleaf, citing a preference for the young leaves of spring, but calling the more mature greens “passably good.”
With Fendler’s waterleaf I have used basal rosette leaves and leaves from bolted plants. They are indeed fuzzy but also fairly delicate, so thrown into soup I don’t notice the fuzz much. More recently I rough-chopped a bunch and tossed it into a pan of Italian sausage a couple minutes prior to turning off the heat. The mild flavor was obscured by that of the sausage, but I didn’t find the texture objectionable. The sausage and waterleaf we didn’t finish that night for dinner later found its way—combined with curly dock (Rumex crispus) and onions and bread that I recycled into bread crumbs—into some baked stuffed tomatoes. The wild-goodness-filled stuffing was great with the soft, caramelized, roasted tomatoes. They were so fantastically round when I first prepped them that it was all I could do not to hurl them across the kitchen.
Waterleaf is a fun plant to learn, whether or not it finds its way into your seasonal kitchen. If you have a ton of it growing by you, you might as well give it a try. The Iroquois ate the leaves of H. virginianum, and some species’ roots were used for food. But as for the foliage of Fendler’s waterleaf, I’m on board with what Sam Thayer writes of his local variety: “I like it, but I wouldn’t travel across the county to get some.”
I’m sure now you’re good and psyched about putting waterleaf on your dinner plate tonight!