Last Updated on April 1, 2021
Virginia waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum) is an easily-recognized edible plant that appears early in spring, great for eager foragers awaiting the first green things of the season. Here’s how to identify Virginia waterleaf, and what to do with lesser-known edible wild plant.
GETTING TO KNOW VIRGINIA WATERLEAF (HYDROPHYLLUM VIRGINIANUM)
I’m not sure where it came from, but a new green guest has joined the other edible wild plants that have been colonizing my yard over the years. First the dandelions, wild violets, purslane, and wood sorrel, then the yarrow, lambsquarters, and cleavers. I’m happy to have them along with things I planted myself, like abundant lemon balm, mint, and rhubarb.
When a new plant shows up, I’m always careful to see if I can eat it before I expend too much energy trying to get rid of it. I’ve been pretty chuffed to discover that much of what has volunteered itself in our yard is indeed edible, and I’m always looking for ways to use it.
Even creeping Charlie turns out to be edible and medicinal, though it can take some effort to find palatable ways to use it.
While not necessarily the most delicious of wild edible plants (also not the worst — see creeping Charlie above), if you’re creative you can still have some fun with Virginia waterleaf. It may not be the yummiest of all the greens I find in my yard, but it does have several things to recommend it.
Its main virtue is how early it is, a big deal in an area where the ground is still frozen in late March, and we’re still waiting (impatiently!) for green things to eat in mid-April. Virginia waterleaf is one of the first plants to take off in early spring, long before the dandelions are ready and well ahead of the first violet leaves even poking out of the ground.
It’s also abundant, great for foragers craving green wild foods. Not as good for gardeners trying to keep them from taking over — Virginia waterleaf can be very invasive in the garden, crowding out other desirable plants. Though as a native plant species, Virginia waterleaf may be more welcome to take over than some.
I guess I should consider myself lucky, as a number of nurseries actually sell this plant for gardeners who don’t already have it trying to usurp their gardens. It’s considered kind of attractive, which I might appreciate more if it didn’t create so many more hours of weeding.
All the more reason to eat it in quantity as you try to keep them from crowding out all the other plants you want growing there.
Virginia waterleaf also goes by the names Shawnee salad and eastern waterleaf.
HOW TO USE VIRGINIA WATERLEAF
Used by the Menominee, Iroquois, and Ojibwe for food and medicine, Virginia waterleaf has been described as “mild” by some and “bland” by others. It doesn’t have a powerful flavor, but when it’s young it has a little sweetness to it. Unlike many wild greens, it’s not at all bitter, which puts some people off a number of commonly-foraged greens. The young leaves are pleasant enough mixed in with other greens, either raw or cooked, but you’ll never just chow a dish of Virginia waterleaf the way you might with tastier dandelion greens.
In the same family as borage, Virginia waterleaf is also slightly fuzzy, more so as leaves get older. Mixed with other greens, young leaves add some variety to spring salads. Older leaves you will want to cook rather than nosh raw. On their own they don’t taste like much and the fuzziness won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but you could season them heavily or combine them with other veggies.
The way I’ve found Virginia waterleaf most palatable is cooked into dishes with plenty of other strong flavors, like a frittata with lots of tomato and cheese, incorporated as you would spinach or kale. You’ll be vaguely aware there’s a green there, but it won’t contribute the sweetness that spinach does or the brassica flavor of kale.
Other ways you might use Virginia waterleaf: As a green on sandwiches, sauteed with other veggies in a stirfry, as a green add-in to your favorite soup or sauteed with garlic and served with pasta. It could also work as an addition to your favorite smoothie recipe, no doubt contributing some free nutrition, though no one seems to have yet conducted a nutritional analysis on it.
I tried making them into chips the way you bake kale chips, but the result was underwhelming. They were passable, but not especially tasty, so I suggest you stick with kale and try my no-fail baked kale chips recipe instead!
The raw leaves of Virginia waterleaf taste significantly better when they’ve gotten enough precipitation. I harvested a bunch after a dry spell and found them far less pleasant than after a good rain. But baked in frittata they worked fine.
So even if Virginia waterleaf isn’t the most exciting wild food you might forage this season, having some wild greens in the mix is generally a good thing regardless, right? I for one will not say no to free food in my yard when basically nothing else is growing yet.
Foraging expert Samuel Thayer has a more favorable impression of the flavor of Virginia waterleaf, including it as one of the few dozen he included in his first foraging guide. He recommends it as a trailside nibble, suggesting that perhaps the flavor of plants growing in a forest differs somewhat from those in neglected parts of my yard.
He also recommends the flower stalks before the flowers open as “sweet, juicy, and crunchy.” You can also eat the unopened flower buds, which are reportedly better cooked than raw.
IDENTIFYING HYDROPHYLLUM VIRGINIANUM FOR EARLY SPRING FORAGING
The first rule of foraging is to make sure you positively identify your plant. Always consult a good field guide before foraging any plant for the first time. These are some of the best foraging books I’ve found. There are also regional guides you can consult, or consider taking a foraging class, like the Herbal Academy’s online foraging course, which teaches plant identification and ethical wildcrafting practices.
Virginia waterleaf’s name comes from its distinctive spots, which resemble water stains. The spots may fade on older leaves. Leaves tend to be dark green, usually with 3, 5 or 7 deep lobes, covered with a fine fuzz. Stems may also have hairs.
Virginia waterleaf has very recognizable flowers, which grow in clusters of bell-shaped blossoms with spiky stamens. They bloom mid to late spring and range in color from white to dark violet. Mine are a light lavender.
Virginia waterleaf grows up to 30 inches tall.
Samuel Thayer points out that the leaves of Virginia waterleaf resemble those of Rudbeckia laciniata (typically called cutleaf coneflower). He reports in his first guide that they taste “unpleasant,” though his most recent guide includes Rudbeckia laciniata as an overlooked plant long prized by the Cherokee. He notes the non-edible buttercup might be confused with Rudbeckia laciniata, so it’s worth familiarizing yourself with buttercup before picking Virginia waterleaf.
WHERE TO FIND VIRGINIA WATERLEAF
Virginia waterleaf prefers moist, semi-shaded soils, though it grows pretty readily in sunny, dry spots of our yard as well. And consider yourself warned: When you spot one of these plants in your garden, take care not to let it go to seed, or you’ll waste a good deal of energy beating them back as they try to crowd out all your other plants.
Virginia waterleaf grows in the eastern half of North America, in zones 4-8. Other varieties of waterleaf grow in different regions, including Fendler’s, (H. fendleri) ballhead (H. capitatum), california (H. occidentale) Pacific waterleaf (H. tenuipes) broadleaf or bluntleaf (H. canadense) macrophyllum in the western half of the United States.
Note that even though these plants may grow in abundance in your yard and favorite foraging grounds, in some areas, Virginia waterleaf is protected, including Connecticut, New Hampshire, Kentucky, and Tennessee. (Other varieties of waterleaf are protected in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Vermont, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. Here’s the USDA list of protected plant species.
LOVE FORAGING WILD FOODS?
Check out the links at the beginning of this post for other edible weeds worth knowing, or consider hunting some delicious berries and edible flowers this season. Mulberries, elderberries, juneberries, and elderflowers are some of our favorites.
You can also add some of the many perennial vegetables that may be incorporated into home landscapes for more options for harvesting delicious veggies from your own yard.
Ever tried Virginia waterleaf? What are your favorite foraged edibles?
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Susannah is a proud garden geek and energy nerd who loves healthy food and natural remedies. Her work has appeared in Mother Earth Living, Ensia, Northern Gardener, Sierra, and on numerous websites. Her first book, Everything Elderberry, released in September 2020 and has been a #1 new release in holistic medicine, naturopathy, herb gardening, and other categories. Find out more and grab your copy here.