Sunday, May 4, 2014

Hydrophyllum capitatum

Hydrophyllum capitatum
I saw a lot of one particularly interesting distinctive leaf growing on my early spring outings. Lower down the mountain, I was able to find them again in a more developed state: Hydrophyllum capitatum or ballhead waterleaf. The excellent Wild Harvests blog reported some success with this and a related pacific waterleaf (H.tenuipes), so this plant became a goal for the following hikes.

The deeply pinnately lobed leaves have a very distinctive shape and are slightly soft-furry, just enough to be annoying to the tongue when raw. Delphinium leaves are also deeply lobed, and emerging at the same time in my area, but all the lobes are radiating from one point (palmately lobed) instead of coming from both sides of a central vein (pinnately lobed). To be sure about the identification, wait until the "ballhead" round clusters of flower buds appear. In H. capitatum they stay below the leaves, while in H. occidentale they rise above the leaves. These will eventually turn into a cluster of purplish-white flowers with protruding stamens giving it a frilly appearance. Below ground is a cluster of brownish roots, each about the size of a bean sprout.

After boiling for 5 minutes, as suggested by the above blog, the leaves where soft and spinachy, and the stem, which the wild harvests blog spoke highly of, were tasty and still slightly crisp. (They leaves seem best after about 3 minutes of boiling.) The immature flower clusters can be eaten along with the leaves.

The root was still rather tough after boiling 5 minutes, so I put the roots back in the boiling water for another 15 minutes. (15 minutes boiling is enough, even at my altitude.) After that time the roots had become much more tender, and tasted quite good, either plain, or with some oil and salt to enhance the flavor. The flavor is very much like potatoes, although the shape is very different.

The best part for eating raw is the lowest portion of the stem, between the root and the flower-head. This part is white and often underground. It is juicy and crunchy, but becomes bitter higher up where the stem takes on more color.

You can make a hearty 3-course meal from waterleaf alone. First, separate the roots, and break each root from the others to make cleaning easier. Clean and boil for 15 minutes, then serve with butter, salt, and pepper to enhance their potato-like flavor. Second, separate and wash the leaves, then boil for 3 minutes. They will wilt and lose much of the space they occupied while raw. Serve like cooked spinach. The younger unopened flower clusters can also be boiled with the leaves, and taste similar. Third, take the lower, lighter colored portion of the stem, and serve either raw or boiled for 3 minutes. It still retains some of its crispness after the brief boiling. I usually discard the upper stems and opened flower clusters, but you can experiment with them for yourself if you want.

Below is a picture of the roots. Notice the new white root is directly under the plant, and the large mature roots are off to the side. This makes me suspect it forms a new root each year.

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