Sunday, May 22, 2011

American Cress

When I was living and working on the campus of Saint John's University/Abbey, I was the recipient of regular spring gifts of watercress. The watercress was established by Fr. Godfrey Diekmann, a monk of St. John's Abbey who was quite involved in the translation of the post-Vatican II lectionary in English. He is a bit of a legend at Saint John's, for his liturgical work and also for his mushroom collecting and other culinary adventures-- of which I count the watercress as a small piece of his legacy. Brother Walter, who also heads up the maple syrup operation each year as "chief tree tapper" and other functions, would bring me plastic bread bags full of the stuff. I went with him once when he collected it, in his waders going out into a shallow spring that fed Lake Watab, down below the Johanna Kiln. There was still snow on the ground, but this area of watercress was a bright green spot on the landscape. Walter managed to keep his balance and cut huge swaths of the stuff and there we had it-- the first greens of the season.

I hate to admit that much of what he gave me over the past several years went to waste. It is strong stuff, so a little goes a long way, and also it has lots of stems. Trying to prepare it for a salad was labor intensive. Still, I wanted some on our property, and took around various rooted bits to the wetlands and laid them in the edges of the ponds. However, that doesn't work. I knew from the reading I'd done that it probably wouldn't because you need running water, a spring is ideal, to grow watercress. 

This year, next to where I've planted the raspberry bushes my friend Deb gave me, Steve and I noticed a beautiful patch of yellow weeds/wildflowers that he couldn't identify. This past week when his friend came out who knows basically every plant in this region, Steve learned that what we had was a stand of American cress, also called land cress or bank cress. It is a perennial, but only does well in really wet springs, which is what we're having in spades. It grows near water, like this stand near our pond, but not in water (thus "bank").

According to Wikipedia, it's been cultivated as a leafy vegetable in England since the 17th century. So now I have plans, of course, for cress soup and salads. In another week I'll have baby spinach and lettuces, and the radishes are peeking up their red heads from the ground. So here we are, with cress! and I will probably avoid eating dandelion greens this year.

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