Monday, June 20, 2011

Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum spp.) - yum yum!

So before I venture out of the woods completely, I'd like to do an overview of Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum spp.) This is a plant that stumped me for sometime as there are 4 different species in our region, each looking rather different from one another, and when not in flower can be somewhat difficult to distinguish. But the good news is, once you have your feeler out for them, you can't miss 'em. I found three on my hike, unfortunately never meeting the Appendaged Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum appediculatum). All are edible and all are tasty. I have even tried them even when flowering and just past, and unlike many other greens, are neither too tough nor too bitter, but have a simple mild taste all the same.

Waterleaf will reach only 1-2' tall and likes to grow in moist woods and along streams. Many that I have found had combined the best of both environments - along a slender mountain stream running down an embankment or hugging edges of moist trail. However, I have also found it growing in more dry habitats laden with rocks; perhaps here they had found soil kept moist and damp in between. Often times, the leaves will be mottled with white appearing "water stained", hence their name. Flowers are 5 petaled, and more or less bell shaped, with protruding stamens and stigmas. Look for blooming flowers spring and early summer.

Virginia Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum)

Virginia Waterleaf in flower
 Above is Virginia Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum). These will grow long stemmed as single basal leaves or alternate on a stem and are thin with a tendency to kind of droop. Leaves can be lightly mottled as if waterstained, though not always, and are 5-7 pinnately lobed. Flowers are purple and somewhat nodding. This batch of flowers was the only one I spotted my entire trip - too early in the higher elevations and too late in the lower. This pic is taken on the trail close to Rattlesnake Lodge just outside Asheville.

Large Leaved Waterleaf (Hydropyllum macrophyllum)

Large Leaf Waterleaf, going to seed - as you can see I was late on catching this one in flower, however, there were some still hanging on, which were creamy white in color.
 Now if this Large Leaved Waterleaf hasn't earned it's name! Only as the plant reaches maturity, when in full flower, will it's mottling begin to fade. However, it should also be noted, that at this point, every plant I've seen has begun to turn brown and spotted and just not very appetizing. This is a younger leaf and as far as I know, would be hard to confuse with anything else. This is one of the first plants I noticed unfurling in the woods up by Sam's Gap on the AT early this spring. The leaf is very hairy as well as the leaf stems, which are weak like VA Waterleaf, yet at the same time more thick. As far as I have seen, this plant produces only basal leaves. Leaves are 7-13 lobed. And as long as you don't mind some fuzz, this plant is edible raw as well!

Broad Leaved Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum canadense)

Broad Leaved Waterleaf about to bloom
I saved this one for last because it is by far the most distinct of our local Waterleaf. It is also the one that perplexed me for sometime, simply because it strongly resembles a maple leaf at first glance as well as flowering red raspberry. But different from a maple sapling, it's stem will be green; different from red flowering raspberry, it will not have a wooly underside. Like Large Leaved Waterleaf, I caught this plant both before flowering and towards the very end, however it's flowers appeared to be a lavendar color. Newcomb's lists its flowers as white or purplish. They will hang in a loose cluster underneath the leaf (another feature which can make it tough to spot at first - but once you have your antennae out for it, you can't miss it!) Additionally, though the leaf is maple-leaf shaped, to me it's center lobe appears longer, and has long/wide lobes at the base that maple leaves do not have.
Broad leaf Waterleaf featured with wood nettle, sheep sorrel, dried shiitakes, and of course some good ol' liptons pasta side - get it cookin!

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