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Winter Cress

I’ve been getting lots of questions about this showy yellow plant, flowering now across PEI. This is Winter Cress (aka Yellow Rocket [Barbarea vulgaris], Photo 1).

Photo 1: Winter Cress (aka Yellow Rocket), Barbarea vulgaris.

Winter Cress is a member of the Mustard Family (Brassicaceae) and so is related to some of your favourite garden plants: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, radishes, and turnip among others. It’s not native to the Island but has become well established here. Like its relatives, it is both edible and nutritious – leaves are high in B vitamins, potassium, calcium, and fibre, while flowers are a source of protein.

Photo 2: Young leaves of Winter Cress are tasty and nutritous greens. Mature plants may be eaten as well, but are intensely bitter. Cooking them (and soaking them overnight before cooking) reduces their bitter edge, but not enough for some people.

Although its name may sound similar to Watercress (Nasturtium officinale), the flavour couldn’t be more different. Winter Cress is also known as Bittercress, for good reason. Older leaves and flowers are intensely bitter, so much so that I simply can’t stomach them raw. Fortunately, there are a few ways to tame that bitter beast. Boiling for 7-10 minutes results in a much more palatable plant, similar to commercially available mustard greens. If that doesn’t take enough of the edge off for you, try changing the water during cooking, or soaking the plant overnight (some swear by soaking Winter Cress in milk, though I haven’t tried that). Young leaves (Photo 2) and flower buds (Photo 3) have a milder flavour and are worth looking for.

Photo 3: Flower buds are my favourite part of Winter Cress. You can steam, saute, boil, or roast them and enjoy as a side dish or toss with pasta.

I use cooked Winter Cress leaves as a side dish, or add them to soups, stews, or casseroles. On their own, they are nice topped with butter and lemon juice, or my homemade vinaigrette that pairs well with bitter greens (you can find it in the Wild Food Recipes section of this blog). Flower buds are nice used as you would broccolini: boiled, steamed, sautéed, or roasted and eaten as a side dish or added to pasta.

Winter Cress is a relative newcomer to PEI, being native to parts of Europe, Asia, and North Africa. Although it may look similar, this is not the Wild Mustard that can be a major weed of grain crops (that’s Sinapsis arvensis), or the Brown Mustard (Brassica juncea) that’s now being grown on the Island to fight wireworm. Winter Cress was likely accidentally introduced to PEI in the early 1900s and was still relatively uncommon here into the 1950s. I recall seeing it sporadically in East Prince and Central Queens Counties in the 1990s and early 2000s but would say it’s far more common today than even 30 years ago. Highway and building construction sites, and other areas either recently cleared or where fill has been added, seem to be particularly full of Winter Cress.

Winter Cress is common, abundant, and can be foraged almost year-round. Green leaves persist under the snow and can be collected in late winter or early spring before anything else is up. The flowering period is long, and buds can often be collected from mid-May until late June. Mature plants can be harvested anytime but take a moment to look for younger plants around the base of older ones; I’ve found tender and mild young leaves well into the summer.

Winter Cress is another pretty and edible part of PEI untamed!

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