A few weeks ago I met up with a fellow wild food collector and he took me on a walk to some of his favourite spots ,the day consisted of sharing our mixed knowledge as he is schooled in the medicinal uses of plants something I have a great thirst to learn and later in the day we meet with a small group of students he was taking on a foraging walk ,
During the walk he asked if there was anything in particular anyone wanted to ask / learn and one of the things was a question about water cress and safe collection .
We are quite lucky to have several really good watercress beds quite close to me and after discussing the ins and outs of safe collection we agreed to jump in the car and I would show them my collection spot.
Upon arriving everyone was suitably impressed by the vast beds and began to fill there baskets and alarm bells went off in my head when my fellow forager simply stated that he didn’t like water cress ,
I mean what’s not to like the juicy cross between pepper and mustard is in no way offensive so I asked if he would pick me a bunch to take home ,
And yes just as I thought he picked far more fools watercress than the real thing and to be honest so did all of the others who where busy collecting .
I’m in no way able to criticise as we all miss identify plants from time to time me more than most sometimes I think but I was happy to share my understanding of the similarities and differences between the two plants and we discussed in length how often people may collect fools watercress and decided on a small experiment as a lot of my online friends are wild food collectors I posted a picture of a bunch of fools watercress stating it to be a haul of true watercress in order to determine if anyone would notice , they didn’t . Just to be clear fools watercress is edible it is not harmful in any way .
The main similarity is probably the habitat they both like water ditches ,streams and continued water sodden areas ,
They both produce clusters of white flowers ,
They both trail floating partially above the water with pinnate leaves ,
The adult colour is very similar , and both flower from approximately may – august
With so many similarities it is no wonder that so many people get the identification muddled but fortunately it’s fairly easy to tell them apart and just needs to be learnt like all things in life it’s easy if you know ,
There are some slight differences that will become more clear when the basics are understood I’ll get these down now before sharing my easy tail tail signs
So firstly the true watercress is part of the Cabbage family (Brassicaceae) and so carries it’s peppery taste and the fools watercress is part of the Carrot family (Apiaceae) and holds the distinct smell of celery ( common with the carrot family ) .
The flowers on both plants range from white to very pale pink but the fools watercress has a common umbrella shaped clusters called umbels the true watercress have peduncles where each flower has four petals each .
Now there are three easy identification traits I was shown and have found not to let me down and they are also easy enough to remember ,
Firstly it’s the harvesting itself true watercress is really fragile and snaps easily so if you need to cut it it’s probably fools watercress ,
The second is the leaves the true watercress has slightly rippled leaves without any teeth whereas the fools watercress is flat with rough serrations , and lastly the leaves on the watercress do not grow opposite they are in fact slightly alternate and fools cress always grows opposite with a sheath at the base .
Watercress is between 88-94% water so is a refreshing and revitalising edible wild food
Watercress more than any other wild green I collect needs and deserves extra care when deciding if suitable to harvest I think everyone has been aware of the risk of fluke larvae being present often from the faeces of livestock grazing in nearby pastures yes this is a real problem but can be easily irradiated by cooking my main concern is man and it’s use of pesticides which contaminate so many of our run offs and water systems , in fact in all the time I’ve foraged I’ve only eaten wild watercress raw once and it was washed first in a Milton wash but find people who say “my patch is in the wild far away from farming ” quite bizarre as fluke is also present in wild deer so my logical thinking tends to lean towards high risk and I’ve not felt happy taking the risk and believe that any wild watercress foraged in the uk need to be cooked before eating ,the one thing I will say is the one time I did eat it wow was it so much more than the shop bought varietie.
Check upstream within reason google maps make looking for potential industrial hazards easy is your find directly linked to farm land , be aware of the flow of the water muddied water tends to mean bad flow and the concentration of hazardous compounds .
Only collect foliage above the water line ,
Try to collect from the centre of the water source where the flow will undoubtedly be faster and collection of hazards will be fewer ,
Always wash your pickings well before eating and storing them in clean fresh water will keep them fresh for a good 48hrs after that they loose there body and are not so appealing so keep that in mind when collection .
I also want to add that I do also actively forage for fools watercress as it’s subtle taste lends itself perfectly as a base ingredient for soups when strong flavoured ingredients are used such as ransoms or hogweed it is defiantly not a unusable plant