Culinary and Herbal Uses
of Aquatic Plants

Presentation by Rev. Charles H. Overton at the 1994 Symposium of the International Water Lily Society. Sparsholt, Germany, July 28th-August 2nd

The recipe for getting real enjoyment out of creating a water garden is this.... put on a straw hat, dress in old clothes, hold a trowel in one hand and a cool drink in the other, and tell the man where to dig.

We've all probably wished we could do that at times ... halfway through your latest earth-moving project, hot, hungry and thirsty, and wondering if you have 'bitten off more than you can chew' this time. But have you ever wondered if there is literally something you can bite off and chew in your water garden? ...

The title of this talk came about because we were asked to suggest subjects of interest for future meetings of the U.K. branch of I.W.L.S. I was rash enough to make a couple of suggestions, and naïve enough to think someone else might pick them up and run with them. I now discover that the world of water gardening is the same as everywhere else ... some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them! ... and so it is that Fate, Harry Hooper and Ray Davies have thrust me upon you.

A chef, it is said, is a man with a big enough vocabulary to give soup a different name each day. I am no such man, being neither a cook nor a herbalist, but an amateur whose intention it is to open up this topic in the hope that someone else with more expertise and imagination than I possess, might be stimulated to look at the possibilities and report successes to a future Symposium. 1 must also apologise at the start and say that the subject is far too big to compass in one short talk, and so I intend to focus more on the culinary uses of aquatic plants (past and present) and leave the medicinal and herbal uses to form the basis of another talk, at another time (and perhaps by another member?!)

My interest in this topic was stimulated because I have a small income and four children ... and because I have always enjoyed picking wild fruits and fungi for enjoyment as well as economy. Two other stimuli were the use of the wonderfully aromatic water mint in our home in place of other mints, and Frances Perry's classic book Water Gardening, in which I noticed the remarkable number of edible uses which she records. Frances Perry it was who linked my dual interests of theology and waterlilies ... and I have had much amusement since by challenging my fellow clergy to say where, in the Bible, waterlily cultivation is described?

It is well known that sayings, both Biblical and otherwise, lose something in the translation... hence a Russian translator found himself perplexed when confronted for the first time since Glasnost with the Biblical phrase 'the Spirit is willing but the flesh is weak' .... He translated it as 'the vodka is alright but the meat is under-done'. Well in the modern English Good News Bible, Ecclesiastes llvl is translated 'Invest your money in foreign trade and one of these days you will make a profit', but a more literal translation (King James Version) is the familiar.... 'Cast thy bread upon the waters; for,
thou shalt find it after many days'.
This proverb is paralleled by the Egyptian (Arab) saying 'Do a good deed and throw it (bread) into the river. When this dries up, you shall find it'.

It was probably the seeds of Nelumbo nucifera which were wrapped in balls of clay and thrown into the flood waters of the Nile, and whose seed heads were pounded into flour and the mature rootstocks also dug up and eaten as the flood waters dried up. Herodotus (484-424BC) described this practice, but it may also have predated the introduction of Nelumbo nucifera (probably circa 525BC) in which case the edible rootstocks would have been Nymphaea lotus or Nymphaea caerulea. Pliny (1st century AD) wrote of the Egyptian practice of making bread from lotus seed mixed with milk or water, 'There is not any bread in the world more wholesome and lighter than this, so long as it is hot, but being once cold, it is harder of digestion and becometh weighty and ponderous'. 

Nannette Bailey Photo

It would seem, therefore, that Water Gardening has been practised extensively in the past, principally for economic rather than aesthetic reasons; and while gathering edible plants from the water must have been going on since the start of human history, it is interesting to note that planting and basic cultivation seem also to have been deliberate practice for thousands of years. The seeds, stems and rhizomes of Nelumbo are all edible and prized in China, where a dish made of seeds and sliced roots with kernels of apricots, walnuts and alternate layers of rice was frequently served to British ambassadors at breakfasts given by the Mandarins. They also used salt and vinegar to preserve the roots for winter eating. The North American Indians eat the fleshy roots of Nelumbo lutea, which resembles sweet potato.

The uses of Nymphaea are likely to be of more practical interest to most of us here (Nelumbos will not grow well outdoors in U.K.), but I have to admit that I have serious reservations about sacrificing my personal waterlily collection in the cause of research for this symposium... they look so much nicer in the pond than on the plate. Most of you will have noticed the sweet smell of a newly broken fresh tuber (not to be confused with the sickly sweet smell of crown rot). I have sliced and dried small quantities of rootstocks form Tuberosa Rosea and Gladstoniana and I can report that the Tuberosa rootstocks are particularly soft, but both kinds will shrivel down to dry pieces which can be ground in a coffee mill to the consistency of flour.

According to Marjorie Furlong, the young, unopened flower buds of Nymphaea Odorata are most palatable when the stamens are removed and the petals soaked ovenight in soda water. They should be drained, rinsed and boiled for a few minutes, and seasoned with butter, salt and pepper. The young, unfurled leaves should be cooked for 8 minutes in salted water and then served with an oil and vinegar dressing. I wonder if they could not be pickled, or turned into a form of Saurkraut? For prime visual effect, perhaps the more wealthy members of the society could use leaves of Arc-en-Ciel in this way?

Werner Wallner Photo 
Richard Mabey, in 'Food for Free' classifies edible plants according to their edible parts, be they rootstocks, salad vegetables, green vegetables, flowers or fruits/seeds. Among the edible aquatic rootstocks he lists are the bulbs of Butomus umbellatus (flowering rush), while the roots of Cyperus longus and Cyperus esculentens (Galingale) were apparently extensively used in the middle ages as a spice in soups, pies and sweets. Furlong says that the tubers of Saggitaria latifolia (Arrowhead, Duck potato, Wapato) are delicious and nutty tasting. My Water Garden has room only for Sagittaria japonica, mostly in its 'plena' form, and, curious as I am, I certainly do not intend to eat my double Japanese arrowhead, though if anyone here has eaten Saggitaria japonica plena, I would be glad to hear your verdict on this expensive dish. Apparently Potamogeton natans (pondweed) also produces tastey and nutricious rootstalks. 

The most notable salad vegatable growing in your pond is likely to be Rorippa nasturtium aquaticum (Watercress) which grows in running water, but seems also to thrive in garden ponds (do not pick if ponds are adjacent to livestock). Mabey considers the older shoots, with the darker, burnished leaves to be the ones to pick. He likes his cress tangy!! Personally I suggest a sandwich made with these older leaves should be liberally dosed with mayonaise and hang the diet... for the plant's Latin name, Nasi-tortium, means 'nose twisting'.

Much more surprising is Veronica beccabunga (Brooklime), which grows in most water gardens as a low, spreading marginal plant. It is said to be a quite widely used salad plant in Northern Europe, while the American sub-species was praised by no less than the Scientific American: 'A salad plant equal to the watercress. Delightful in flavour, healthful and anti-scorbutic' Mabey does not list green vegetables from among our pond plants, unless your water garden is marine, when the Salicornia europea (Samphire) and various seaweeds might qualify, but Frances Perry does make passing mention of various plants which can be used as vegetables, including the new spring shoots of the extraordinarily versatile Typha Latifolia, while Phragmites (reed), Juncus (rush) and Carex (sedge) are all said to have edible roots and young stems and leaves, and edible dried seeds. I find the dried seeds of Carex Pendula a bit too hard and gritty myself, but perhaps I've dried them too much.

Furlong writes, 'The succulent lower portions of Sparganium (burreed) leaves and stems and the tender rootstalks and tubers are delicious served raw in salads or steamed or boiled in a small amount of water then seasoned with butter, salt, pepper and a bit of lemon. Also try sautéing the tender rootstalks, tubers and tender parts of leaves and stems in butter for a few minutes. Burreed is also a good substitute for sedge in her stir fry sedge recipe.

The uses of Typha latifolia and other species are sufficient to make a good lecture on their own, (artificial velvet, basket making, barrel caulking, thatching, gunpowder ingredient etc.), and their value in the kitchen is said to be considerable. Thus Furlong: 'Wash thoroughly the young shoots of cattails (Typha) and the white stem inside the lower leaves, then eat like celery or cut into pieces and steam. In early spring you can find the young spikes hidden in a leaflike sheath. Break off the heads and drop into boiling water for 3-4 minutes. Remove from the water, cover with butter, salt and eat like an ear of corn. When the spike or head first appears above the leaves, the area above it is loaded with pollen. Shake off this golden powder and use it mixed with flour in muffins, breads or pancakes. This pollen contains proteins, fats and vitamins. The root can be gathered and used as a starchy vegetable year round. Wash thoroughly and peel. The starch can be dug out first or the whole root can be cooked and later strained to get rid of the fibres. Perry quotes Dr. Clark's 'Travels' in which he speaks of the esteem with which the young stems of Typha were held as a vegetable by the Cossacks. I have tried these, boiled and served with a cheese sauce. The tender shoots were mostly of good texture, but some were stringy, and the flavour was delicate to the point of being rather bland (reminiscent of asparagus). Give me a plate of leeks any day! They are much less hazardous to collect too. Getting a wader full of pond water in March is a bit chilly!

If you hail from the U.S.A. you may be fortunate enough to own a swamp where the wild rice (Zizania aquatica) grows, an edible seed which the Indians thought worthwhile and which Perry rates as excellent eating. It grows to 2 1/2-3m (10 feet), which is a little tall for most water gardens, however. Another seed which may be of interest is the seed of Nuphar luteum, which can be treated like popping corn (now that might be worth trying!) while the North American Indians even found their sweets among the marshes. Apparently Phragmites stems, if broken or punctured in some way, exude a sugary substance which hardens into a gum. The Indians used to collect this and break it into balls for eating as sweets. They also made something like toasted marshmallow by cutting Phragmites stems, drying them and then grinding them and sifting out the flour, which contains much sugar and, when placed by a fire, swells and browns like toasted marshmallow.

Furlong and Pill include a section of their book devoted to practical cooking, with sample menus and many recipes for such as Cattail Pollen Muffins, Wapato and Burreed Salad, Stirfry Sedge, etc, while Mabey includes a recipe for Mint Julep and says that this is much the best when made with Mentha aquatica.

In conclusion I would encourage you all to have a go at eating some of your pond plants. It would be very interesting to hear of new and successful recipes, and to debate at some future date whether mankind has lost a lot of valuable knowledge and epicurean delight, or whether the small number of modern vegetable varieties used by most of us today do in fact represent much the best of flavour and quality in the vegetable kingdom.

Pond plants... are they worth collecting and eating? I leave you to experiment and to make your own conclusions. Meanwhile, the book 'Edible? Incredible! Pondlife' describes not only the edible plants of North American ponds, but also the edible fauna... including freshwater mussels (use a clam chowder recipe), crayfish, frogs, turtles and duck and fish. I know that the Polish people traditionally eat carp for their Christmas dinner, but I cannot see many IWLS members grilling their koi next Christmas, and I for one will stick to turkey, mince pies and Christmas pudding.


Perry, Frances: 'Water Gardening' 1938 Revised 1961, (Country Life)

Mabey, Richard: 'Food for Free - A guide to the edible wild plants of Britain' (Fontana 1975 ISBN 0 00 633470 9)

Furlong, Marjorie and Pill, Virginia: 'Edible? Incredible! Pondlife - The eating guide to American ponds' (Naturegraph Publishers, Inc. 1980 ISBN 0-87961-084-0 cloth, 0-87961-083-2 paper)

Culpeper, Nicholas: Culpeper's Complete Herbal (compiled circa 1654, republished circa 1975 by W. Foulsham & Co. Ltd. ISBN 0-572 00203 3)

Charles Overton, a long-time IWGS member, has recently returned to England after spending two years at Latour-Marliac in France.

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