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Introducing Pacific, Virginia, and western waterleafs – 3 native wild vegetables

 
gardener
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Location: Olympia, WA - Zone 8a/b
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It can be a challenge to figure out what to grow in the shade—especially in the middle of a forest with a closed canopy. Luckily there are wild native vegetables that love to grow in those shady forest environments.

This week’s blog post—Pacific Waterleaf, Virginia Waterleaf and Western Waterleaf – 3 Fantastic Wild Native Vegetables—covers 3 very similar wild native vegetables that together can be found across most of the United States and also parts of Canada.

While there are other wild native vegetables that also grow in the shade (redwood sorrel and miners lettuce are 2 examples) I really love waterleafs—especially Pacific waterleaf.

Let’s dive into why I love these great plants.

Why Waterleafs are Awesome



What I love about waterleafs is that they can grow in deep shade and will actively spread and form large patches that can provide you all the fresh and cooked greens you might need from early spring until the summer heat makes them a bit too tough.

The above picture shows a growing area along the northside of one of my hugelkultur hedgerows that is also under a cherry tree. When I took that picture that area still gets a little sunlight but once the cherry tree (and other plants) leafs out fully that area is all shade.

I have miners lettuce growing there but I also added several Pacific waterleaf plants to it. I can’t wait till they spread and fill in that whole area with miners lettuce scattered throughout.

This will make a shady area that normally would be tough to get much food a very productive area. I especially love how early waterleafs popup in the spring—they really are a great spring green.

I’m much more familiar with Pacific waterleaf since it’s native to my area but the other 2 (Virginia and western) are very similar. The blog post has more information on both of them plus Pacific waterleaf.

What Does it Taste Like?



So what does waterleaf taste like? Well Pacific waterleaf at least (and Plants for a Future rates the other 2 as being even better) is very mild and great in salads or on a sandwich. It can also be cooked though I have only used it raw.

The leaves are a bit fuzzy but otherwise they’re great and I don’t really mind the fuzziness.

Waterleafs are great wild native vegetables and I love that they can fill in the hard to grow shady areas. As long as you plant them in a shady and well mulched area your waterleafs should spread every year until you will have more greens than you can use.

So have you tried growing or foraging waterleafs? Check out the blog post and let me know!

While you are over on the blog most make sure to leave a comment! If you are the first to do so you will get a piece of pie! The pie will get you access to some special features on perimes, discounts at some vendors, and you can use it to purchase some products on the permies digital marketplace.

If you leave a comment on the blog post make sure to leave a post here on permies too so I can easily give you the slice of pie.
 
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Waterleaf is such a wonderful plant! We have Virginia and appendaged waterleaf here and look forward to foraging them every spring! The flowers are even more delicious than the leaves. Though the leaves are quite delicious too. Very mild. Plus it's just a beautiful plant.

There's quite a bit growing down the road from our house, so it's easy to forage, but I would like to bring some into our forest garden as I'm a little worried someone will decide to "clean up" the roadside and chop/remove it. Any suggestions on transplanting?
Staff note (Daron Williams):

Thanks for the comment on the blog post! You were the first so pie for you!

 
Daron Williams
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Thanks for the comment Heather! I'm glad to hear that you're enjoying these plants!

I have only transplanted Pacific waterleaf but from what I was reading I think they're all fairly similar. Waterleafs like to spread by underground rhizomes so the plants may be connected to each other. But what I like to do is find plants on the edge of a patch and carefully dig those up. The plant should have its own roots and there may be new rhizomes growing out from the plant. If you can try to keep these intact. If there are any rhizomes that connect the plant you're digging up with others either just break that rhizome or possibly try taking both plants but often I just take the one. Waterleafs seem to be very resilient and don't mind being transplanted.

Early spring when they're just coming up is the best time but you could transplant them now even if they have come up more. Just make sure to put them in a shady well mulched and ideally moist area and water them in well.

The plant will likely be slow to start to spread. My 3 year old plants are now really spreading but the first year they didn't at all and just a bit during the 2nd year.

I have even had success with pieces of rhizomes surviving and growing new waterleafs--this happened when I was transplanting another plant that was growing in a waterleaf patch. Apparently without me knowing it I had gotten a piece of a waterleaf rhizome and now there is a new waterleaf plant growing next to the plant I was trying to transplant.

Hope that helps and please share how transplanting goes for you!
 
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I'd never heard of waterleafs, gonna see if I can find some growing wild nearby!
 
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A request: please include the binomial nomenclature when referring to a plant, especially one new to many.   Pacific is Hydrophyllum tenuipe, Virginia is Hydrophyllum virginianum, and Western is Hydrophyllum occidentale.
Apparently there are more!

Thanks!
 
Daron Williams
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Cara Campbell wrote:A request: please include the binomial nomenclature when referring to a plant, especially one new to many.   Pacific is Hydrophyllum tenuipe, Virginia is Hydrophyllum virginianum, and Western is Hydrophyllum occidentale.
Apparently there are more!

Thanks!



Thanks for listing those--there are links on the blog post to USDA and Plants for a Future websites for each of the waterleafs covered in this post. Those sites all list the scientific names. But I did add those names to the blog post
 
pollinator
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Cara Campbell wrote:A request: please include the binomial nomenclature when referring to a plant, especially one new to many.   Pacific is Hydrophyllum tenuipe, Virginia is Hydrophyllum virginianum, and Western is Hydrophyllum occidentale.
Apparently there are more!

Thanks!



I'm trying to identify the clumps of weeds in my woodland backyard that appear to be either waterleafs or wood anemones. Until they flower, it's going to be very difficult figuring out what they are!
 
Daron Williams
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Interesting Diane! Wood anemones does look very similar to waterleafs. But the flowers are a lot different at least.
 
pollinator
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I was out in the woods a couple days ago and a carpet of similar plants covered a huge area. It was very abundant. I guessed it might be coltsfoot, young, with the the leaves still small. But perhaps it was Pacific Waterleaf.
 
Daron Williams
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Jeremy Baker wrote:I was out in the woods a couple days ago and a carpet of similar plants covered a huge area. It was very abundant. I guessed it might be coltsfoot, young, with the the leaves still small. But perhaps it was Pacific Waterleaf.



Could be! Take a picture next time and post it here and I might be able to help you ID the plant.
 
Jeremy Baker
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I’m 90% convinced it is a massive patch of P. Waterleaf. This range map I found shows it as absent from my county, Skagit, and Snohomish, but I found it in Whatcom County. Thanks for turning me onto it. It’s not flowering yet.
https://www.pnwflowers.com/flower/hydrophyllum-tenuipes
 
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I see this plant everywhere and taught myself it's name and identification a few years ago. I like to wild harvest food and medicine but had no idea this was edible. Thanks so much for opening a rather large door for me!
 
Jennifer Paulson
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Jeremy Baker wrote:I’m 90% convinced it is a massive patch of P. Waterleaf. This range map I found shows it as absent from my county, Skagit, and Snohomish, but I found it in Whatcom County. Thanks for turning me onto it. It’s not flowering yet.
https://www.pnwflowers.com/flower/hydrophyllum-tenuipes



Hi Jeremy, I'm in Whatcom County! We do have a lot of waterleaf ground cover here (I am very excited to learn that it is edible). At least in the lowlands, coltsfoot has already flowered so if you didn't see seedheads, it likely wasn't coltsfoot. I've noticed waterleaf often grows with coltsfoot but coltsfoot doesn't always grow with waterleaf.  I've also noticed waterleaf and Vanilla Leaf (Achlys triphylla) growing together. It took be a couple outings of really paying attention to it to finally be able to comfortably identify it.  

file:///C:/Users/Jen/Downloads/pixlr_20200420192954952.jpg

Happy to see someone from my area on the forums, so I wanted to say hi.
pixlr_20200420192954952.jpg
 Attached in a picture of coltsfoot (Petasites frigidus var. palmatus ) growing near sea level.
Attached in a picture of coltsfoot (Petasites frigidus var. palmatus ) growing near sea level.
 
Jeremy Baker
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Hi Jennifer,
Thanks for the pictures of coltsfoot. I saw lots of Vanilla Leaf in the Rockport, Upper Skagit, a few days ago. Leaves were still small. Trillium is in full bloom there. Yeah, it’s good to hear from another local and learn more about the edibles like Waterleaf. The nettles in the full sun are almost ready to seed already.
 
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Jennifer Paulson wrote:

Jeremy Baker wrote:I’m 90% convinced it is a massive patch of P. Waterleaf. This range map I found shows it as absent from my county, Skagit, and Snohomish, but I found it in Whatcom County. Thanks for turning me onto it. It’s not flowering yet.
https://www.pnwflowers.com/flower/hydrophyllum-tenuipes



Hi Jeremy, I'm in Whatcom County! We do have a lot of waterleaf ground cover here (I am very excited to learn that it is edible). At least in the lowlands, coltsfoot has already flowered so if you didn't see seedheads, it likely wasn't coltsfoot. I've noticed waterleaf often grows with coltsfoot but coltsfoot doesn't always grow with waterleaf.  I've also noticed waterleaf and Vanilla Leaf (Achlys triphylla) growing together. It took be a couple outings of really paying attention to it to finally be able to comfortably identify it.  

file:///C:/Users/Jen/Downloads/pixlr_20200420192954952.jpg

Happy to see someone from my area on the forums, so I wanted to say hi.



Thank you for this! I see this plant when I walk with my kids down our private road, and I've been wondering what it was!
 
pollinator
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Ditto!  Please, please include botanical name for a plant... especially a 'new' one.  Many plants have numerous different common names, and it can get very confusing... even dangerous sometimes!  i.e., 'hemlock'.
 
Daron Williams
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Thanks all! Great to see all the interest in these fantastic plants! 😊 I think waterleafs could be a great addition to a lot of wild homesteads. I can’t wait till I have it growing in all my shady areas.

And thank you Jennifer for sharing the info on coltsfoot!
 
Jennifer Paulson
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Nicole Alderman wrote:

Thank you for this! I see this plant when I walk with my kids down our private road, and I've been wondering what it was!



I think P. frigidus has the coolest flower. It looks alien. It's become a real treat to see bloom near the end of winter (coastal WA). It puts up it's flowering stalk first, then works on leaf and seed production. I haven't harvested the leaves, but they are used for an antispasmatic once dinner plate sized (smaller is mildly toxic if I'm remembering correctly). It's been awhile, but I used to harvest the root as part of my popular pain salve formula.
 
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Thanks for posting this! I had just begun harvesting Virginia Waterleaf this season; it's wildly abundant down along the creeks where it occasionally floods.

I'm curious if anyone can help me figure out if I have different species growing here, or just variations of H. virginianum.









They all seem to grow in the same areas right around each other. The size variations depending on location also seem to pretty dramatic. The ones growing right along the creek bed in nice sandy soil seem to get significantly larger than elsewhere, but also I've noticed (and not just for this plant) that there are natural hugel-ish situations where some old partially buried logs create little micro-niches of fertility.

Another observation, fwiw, is that they don't seem to mind sharing space with black walnuts! They actually seem to occupy the same niche that wood nettles (Laportea canadensis) occupy a month or so later. At this point there always seems to be some Spring Beauties nearby (Claytonia virginica), as well as honewort (Cryptotaenia canadensis) that's starting to come up now and many violets as well (Viola sororia). There are many places in the woods where almost everything I can see on the ground right now is edible!



Whenever I'm out hiking I'll eat them raw. I find the 3rd one down, with the "water marks" to be drier and hairier while the other two are quite good and mild. Just a hint of a terpene or something you might find in carrot tops, but not nearly as strong as with honewort. I've been eating a lot of them cooked and they hold up pretty well. When cooked the hairiness reminds me of eating cooked stinging nettle, and honestly if someone had served me this and told me it was stinging nettle I probably would've believed it! They can have a fairly long stem that can be a bit fibrous, but not in a bad way.

I decided to try and blanch and freeze a bunch to see how it holds up in those conditions and if it's something I could preserve for year round eating. About 2 quarts worth of packed fresh leaves fit nicely on a cookie sheet after blanching for around 90 sec and then cooling. (Collecting that much maybe took around 30 min of casual browsing). After freezing it on the sheet it all fit pretty nicely in a gallon ziplock bag. I had some 1lb bags of frozen organic spinach from Aldi's and it seemed to be around the same quantity, but I didn't weigh it. I'll try to eat some after a few weeks and I'll let you know how it tastes!



Does anyone have any info regarding nutritional or medicinal info? I've googled it a couple times with no luck. Since it's a wild green I'm assuming it's "real good for me", but I'd love to know more specifics and also if there's any concern with eating too many. I've had a few fairly large servings a number of times over the past few days without noticing anything to be concerned about.

Hope that's all helpful or whatever.

-WY
 
Daron Williams
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Interesting Mike I'm afraid I don't know--I'm much more familiar with Pacific waterleaf but hopefully some one will know. I haven't been able to find any nutritional info but Plants for a Future does talk about medicinal uses of waterleafs. The links are in the blog post but here they are too!

Pacific Waterleaf: https://pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Hydrophyllum+tenuipes
Virginia Waterleaf: https://pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Hydrophyllum+virginianum
Western Waterleaf: https://pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Hydrophyllum+occidentale

But even that site doesn't have a lot of info. Honestly, it seems like watereleafs aren't that well known
 
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I just planted a whole bunch of wild violets from Oikos underneath a particularly shady spot in my yard (it's mostly not shade, since all of the trees are in establishment, and will be for quite a few years...). I planted them because of the shade tolerance and because they're a tasty little green that stands up to foot traffic well. How would you say waterleaf compares in terms of flavor? They look like they probably mind getting trampled quite a bit more, but it'd still be cool to incorporate them! Thanks for the post
 
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mike patterson, do those different-looking plants taste any different?

the not-watermarked ones look a lot like sochan (cutleaf coneflower/Rudbeckia laciniata) leaves to me, which is another perennial edible that i have in abundance here in western nc. i don't seem to have waterleaf (though i know i've seen it around somewhere locally) but will try to get it (as well as honewort, since you mention it) on my property. sochan has a pretty distinct flavor that i find hard to classify (i've heard people say it tastes medicine-y to them though i don't quite get that)...i haven't heard if waterleaf has much of a distinct flavor? it would definitely be obvious to you in the late summer/fall during flowering if sochan was there, since the flowers are yellow and 3-5 feet tall, very different from waterleaf.
 
Mike Patterson
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greg mosser wrote:mike patterson, do those different-looking plants taste any different?

the not-watermarked ones look a lot like sochan (cutleaf coneflower/Rudbeckia laciniata) leaves to me, which is another perennial edible that i have in abundance here in western nc. i don't seem to have waterleaf (though i know i've seen it around somewhere locally) but will try to get it (as well as honewort, since you mention it) on my property. sochan has a pretty distinct flavor that i find hard to classify (i've heard people say it tastes medicine-y to them though i don't quite get that)...i haven't heard if waterleaf has much of a distinct flavor? it would definitely be obvious to you in the late summer/fall during flowering if sochan was there, since the flowers are yellow and 3-5 feet tall, very different from waterleaf.



That's a good question, thanks for bringing it up! I had to delve back into my go-to wild edible bible, the complete works of Samuel Thayer. He writes about Waterleafs in The Forager's Harvest. It's not one of his longer chapters, but one thing he mentions is the similarity in appearance to cut-leaf coneflower. He even includes a picture of it growing right alongside waterleaf. The picture also has a waterleaf with spots and a waterleaf without spots, and this is all within maybe a square foot of soil. He describes cut-leaf coneflower as being more tough and coarse compared to waterleaf and "unpleasant to eat" but not dangerous or toxic. Based on that and your description as tasting distinct or medicine-y I would think that is not what I've been eating. I think I mentioned in my first post that I found the waterleafs with the spots as being a little more hairy compared to the other two I was eating, and not nearly as sweet or succulent. The "flavor" is still mild, but it almost seems like with greens the texture is more important. None of them were even close to as "strong" of a flavor as honewort. I guess I'll just keep an eye out for when they all flower and should have a better idea then.

He also mentions 8 species found in the US: California waterleaf H. occidentale, Pacific waterleaf H. tenuipes, ballhead waterleaf H. capitatum, Fendler's waterleaf H. fendleri, large waterleaf H. macrophyllum, broad waterleaf H. canadense, appendaged waterleaf H. appendiculatum, and Virginia waterleaf H. virginianum. After doing some disappointing google image searching, it almost seems like one of them could be H. capitatum even though Thayer classifies that as one found in the Western states.

I'm leaning toward all 3 of the examples I found to be variations of H. virginianum, but again hopefully the flowers will help!

-WY
 
Daron Williams
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Lew – I planted a bunch of wild violets last fall and they’re just getting established so I haven’t tried harvesting leaves from them yet. Waterleafs are very mild and have a nice flavor but I don’t know what the violets taste like yet. I hope to start harvesting them later in the summer once they fill out a bit more. They didn’t like being transplanted but most seem to be recovering fine.

Greg – Pacific waterleaf at least has a very mild flavor that fits in nicely with other greens. Other than it’s fuzziness it doesn’t really stand out compared to other mild greens.

Mike – Thanks for sharing the info from that book!
 
Mike Patterson
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Ok, now I'm pretty convinced I've been eating sochan. Thayer has a chapter on them in his newer book, Incredible Wild Edibles, and describes them in fairly glowing terms... somewhat of a 180 from calling them "unpleasant" in his 1st book. Also got directed to this site via a facebook group. I have to say it's pretty mild tender and tasty!

Anyway, don't mean to hi-jack the waterleaf thread!

Thanks for the input!

-WY
 
greg mosser
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aha! i had just reread your saying it tasted like carrot tops and was thinking, 'maybe that's kinda what i mean'. i thought it looked familiar!

also sorry for thread jack, maybe i'll start a new sochan thread.
 
greg mosser
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maybe a bit more on topic, we have a huge amount of violet here, both purple- and white-flowered. we use leaves and flowers in salads a lot and also cook with the leaves sometimes (a just finishing a soup with mixed wild greens in it, violet included). it's a super mild green, no noticeable flavor except 'a bit of green'.
 
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