Just one generation ago it was common to go out in fields and roadsides and gather Winter Cress for the first fresh cooked greens of the year. Modern lifestyle has made this unnecessary (for now), but Winter Cress or “Creesies” as they are often called, is still a very tasty vegetable and can make good eating an adventure.
Winter Cress is a member of the mustard family, so it is referred to as Wild Mustard. It is usually found in low, rich land, often near streams and ditches. It likes growing on disturbed soil such as cultivated fields. During warm spells in mid to late winter the plant sends out a whorl of leaves from a central root. It is often one of the first green things you see growing in the Spring. The leaves are smooth and grow several pairs of what look like ear lobes. In late winter the leaves are small, but will eventually grow to be 4 to 8 inches long. In April Winter Cress sends up a flower stalk about a foot tall that produces bright yellow 4-petaled flowers.
For best eating, the leaves need to be gathered early, while the nights are still frosty. When picked early Cress is no more bitter than leaf lettuce, and can be used as a salad. They can also be cooked and served as you would spinach. In mid-March to early April the plant begins to take on a bitter flavor, but it can still be eaten as cooked greens if it is boiled twice. My mother would boil them for about 10 minutes the first time, dump the water, and then boil them in fresh water until tender.
After the flower stalk appears, Cress is probably too bitter to eat. The unopened flower buds can be gathered and cooked in two waters as mentioned above (first boil one minute, second boil 3 minutes) and served with butter like you would broccoli.
Wild greens are very high in Vitamins A, B1, B2, and C, making them fun, tasty, and healthy all in one. Do properly identify any wild plant before eating it, and eat only a small amount the first time in case of food allergies. The best teacher is an older person who grew up eating wild greens. Get them to show you some other greens while your out, like plantain, poke, violet leaves, and Watercress. Do get the kids involved, to show then there is life beyond the refrigerator.