Water Pepper

As I write this, I am sitting on a bench. Opposite me is a large patch of water pepper. I write with an ancient, primitive tool. A pencil that creates my scribblings on chequered paper in my journal.

This morning, water pepper rises amongst the Himalayan Balsam as I sit on a bench overlooking a virtual forest of this green friend.

There is a chill in the air, and the sun shines down on me, as it does for us all. Regardless of our status or temperament.

Simple pleasures. Sitting with green friends. No phone. No digital disconnection. Just here. Feeling, breathing and smelling my local ecosystem.

Most of the stands are knee-high, and water pepper can also reach waist height.

Synonyms

Marshpepper, annual smartweed, smartweed, arse-smart.

Scientific Name

Persicaria hydropiper

Family

Polygonaceae

Botanical Description

Stems 1-2 feet high, often decumbent at the base. Stipules fringed. Leaves lanceolate, wavy. Flowers in slender drooping spikes, the clusters of flowers almost all distinct. The perianths dotted with small glands.

Status

Annual.

Habitat

Cultivated land, marsh, meadow, ponds, riverbanks, wasteland.

Harvest Time

June-October

Parts Used

Shoots, leaves and tips.

Nutritional Profile

Protein 7.54%. Fat 1.86. Carbohydrate 7.99%. Ash 1.99%. The leaf contains essential oils.

Food Uses of Water Pepper

Not much is mentioned in the wild food cookbooks about water pepper.

With its willow-like leaves, the older ones are dark green, similar to how an old lime might look in colour. The young tips and flower buds are what wild epicureans seek.

Pick a small leaf from the top, and in a short moment, this humble looking plant kicks serious ass as heat tears through your palate. Chillies eat your heart out! It is similar in heat to Tasmanian pepper.

This is wild, feral, pungent heat, yet once it subsides it leaves a pleasant taste.

It is the bicyclic sesquiterpenoid, polygodial that is responsible for the pungent taste, and it is almost impossible to substitute it with any other spice.

Rummaging around the food record I find barely any reference to water pepper being used in Europe. So I keep looking. I’m interested in any possible historical use for it.

My journey takes me east to Japan and South East Asia, where I discover the leaf is traditionally used to garnish sushi. Move over wasabi.

The leaves are also mixed with vinegar (the record doesn’t say what type), and soy sauce.

This dipping sauce is called tade su and is served with ayu (sweetfish). This makes me curious, maybe it would go with small sardines or fresh Cornish pilchards would work.

My water pepper recipe is a variation on the Japanese one. As no quantities where listed in the original version, I had to make them up. A dash of this, a dash of that.

I served it drizzled over prawn cocktail on avocado (I know, how very 1970s.), shared with a dear friend. We both agree. This is something very special.

Water Pepper Recipes

Wild Tade Su

Other Uses

The stalks produce a yellow dye.

Safety Note

Rare reports of some people experiencing blistering after handling the aerial parts.

References

Read, B. (1982). Famine foods list in the Chiu Huang Pen Ts’ao. The Botany of mahuang. Common food dishes of Shangai. Taipei: Southern Materials Center.

Peter, K. (2012). Handbook of Herbs and Spices. Cambridge: Elsevier Science.

Coon, N. (1975). The dictionary of useful plants. Emmans, Pa: Rodale Press.

Clapham, A., Tutin, T., Warburg, E., & Roles, S. (1952). Excursion flora of the British Isles. Cambridge University Press.

Comment

  1. Sure have something that LOOKS LIKE the water pepper. Are the tiny flowers white when open inside pink sleeve? I could send a photo. BUT, no hotness in even the youngest leaf. Incidentally, the leaves on this are covered in short hairs that point to tip, top and bottom.
    Writing from Grafton, NH, US

  2. Thanks for a very interesting, enjoyable and extremely well-written article! I identify with your comments on time spent in silent contemplation. Our ecosystem is so utterly amazing that words cannot adequately describe how wonderful it all is.
    I believe we can all benefit from spending time in silent contemplation of nature, and that if everyone would so spend, on most days, even a little time, we would benefit as a society and as a species. Our world be a better place.
    May all positive energy be with you.
    Keep up the good work!
    Rolande / Rolo (P.S. Initially I accidentally posted this as a comment on the recipe; please remove it if you can – I can’t!).

  3. I was told that the reason The plant is called smart-ass is that it was used in stuffing for the bedding, to keep the bugs away. Also, the plant looses its peppery properties if heated. So, having it in vinegar makes sense. I’d also like to try drying the seeds to see if they keep the kick.

  4. It’s funny reading your article as it reminds me that just a few weeks ago I met you at the Wild Herb Week-end, NC Herbal Conference, and a friend and I stopped you as you were walking by, and we asked you what this plant was, and you said it was a smart ass, and I thought for a moment that you were the one being the smart-ass. Oh my goodness, funny times.

  5. Have it growing here in Dorset omg it’s hot one bite lulls you in its nice not much to it then it hits you most definitely would make your arse smart lol ? good article as always Robin

  6. Polygodial is responsible for the pungent test of Persicari leaf, it binds to the same receptor as peeprin, an active component of black pepper. And tesat is similar. but Eurpoenas spend enormous resources and wasted lives of thousands of sailor and killed millions of natives in their quest for black paper, while herb with similar test was weed readily available in the countryside

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