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 up 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.
Marshpepper, annual smartweed, smartweed, arse-smart.
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.
Cultivated land, marsh, meadow, ponds, riverbanks, wasteland.
Shoots, leaves and tips.
Protein 7.54%. Fat 1.86. Carbohydrate 7.99%. Ash 1.99%. 1 The leaf contains essential oils. 2
Use of Water Pepper As Food
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.
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
The stalks produce a yellow dye. 3
Rare reports of some people experiencing blistering after handling the aerial parts. 4
About The Author
Robin Harford is a plant-based forager, ethnobotanical researcher, and wild food educator. He is the author of Plantopedia: The Past and Present Uses of Wild Plants.
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- 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.