At the first hint of spring in the Appalachian Mountains, folks start looking for “creasy greens”. They are the earliest of any of the wild greens, often poking through the snow, and although traditionally hunted by foragers they are now grown commercially. Creasy greens are usually cooked long, like kale, mustard or turnip greens but they are equally good raw in a fresh salad.
So, what ARE creasy greens, really? The botanical name is Barbaraea verna; they are a mustard in the Brassicaceae family. Creasy greens are a small leafy green often known as upland cress, winter cress, and early yellow rocket. They are similar to watercress in taste but do not grow in bogs the way watercress does. There is a similar species called winter rocket (Barbarea vulgaris). The other two major cresses are watercress (Nasturtium officinale) and garden cress (Lepidium sativum). Cress, in general, denotes plants with a sharp taste used in salads or as a potherb (cooked greens). There is a variegated upland cress that is both pretty and edible: Barbarea vulgaris 'Variegata'.
Fresh creasy greens
Old fashioned pot of greens
Super healthy salad
The popularity of creasy greens is increasing, and not just because the old-timers hold fond memories of them. New, health-conscious gardeners are planting creasy seeds in fall for an early spring crop, and the Eat Local trend is having much the same effect. Creasy greens can be easily grown in your own garden, and are much tastier and of course fresher than greens trucked across the continent. Creasy’s require very little care, and can be considered perennial as they self-sow. (Technically, they are biennial.)
Growing Creasy Greens A plus for many gardeners, creasy greens will grow in almost any soil, from heavy clay to sandy, neglected soils although you will have a better crop in more fertile soils. Like their cousin watercress, they love water but will not grow in standing water. They like full sun but can also grow in light shade. You can plant creasy’s in early summer for a fall crop (Brassicas are cool season crops), and seed sown in August is ready for harvest from January to about April. They prefer a pH of 5.8 to 6.5, so have your soil tested for lime application.
One big plus for me personally about growing creasy greens is that I haven’t had time to build cold frames, nor a 4-season greenhouse a la Eliot Coleman, but I can plant and harvest creasy greens when it’s too cold to grow anything else. Creasy greens grow in a rosette much like dandelions. They produce a lovely yellow flower but the greens should be picked before they flower or they tend to become bitter. Here’s a link to a good photo of them growing.
Germination The seeds germinate best when it is cool and damp. Days to maturity: 40 to 45 days. At the bottom of this article is a short list of seed suppliers. There may be more, those are just the ones I found easily. Creasy greens are an heirloom vegetable and probably any good supplier of heirloom seeds may have them. You can also let a few plants go to seed when you grow them, and save the seed.
Nutrition: Euell Gibbons, the master forager, reported in his book, Stalking the Healthful Herbs that “100 grams of winter cress (creasy greens) contain an impressive 5,067 I.U. of vitamin A and 152 milligrams of vitamin C. By comparison, the same weight of raw broccoli spears rates only 2,500 I.U. of vitamin A . . . and oranges (which of course are universally acknowledged as a good source of vitamin C) provide a comparatively measly 50 milligrams of C per 100 grams!” 
Cooking: Most home gardeners pick off leaves and leave the central core, but where creasy greens are grown commercially, they cut the stalk off at the ground. In some zones, the remaining root system will re-grow for next year’s crop. If you cut the central core off flat, be prepared to wash the greens several times. The base of the leaves holds a lot of dirt and sand.
Since moving to a more rural area of the Appalachian Mountains, I hear about the almost-forgotten foods of the area, like creasy greens, quite often. (Ramps come up at the same time as creasy greens, and are often served together.) I had heard of creasy greens but really had no clue beyond the name. Then, my neighbor Buster and I were shopping in a small country store last week and they had a box of fresh creasy greens! Naturally I had to try them. Raw, they are very peppery, like a good old fashioned radish. He said the peppery bite goes away when they are cooked, so I bought a “mess of greens” to try.
I soaked them in a huge tub of cold water, rinsed, filled, rinsed… I thought I’d never get the sand out. Then I decided to take all the stems off the base, and remove the tougher lower part of the stem. One more rinsing did the trick! At Buster’s suggestion, I sautéed a bunch of onions and some smoked bacon. Added that to a big pot of water and the greens, and cooked it about an hour. I have to say they were delicious! Later, I wished I had made some pinto beans and cornbread to go with them, but I’ll still pass on the ramps!
Next time (when I grow my own), I’ll just boil the greens a few minutes, drain, and sauté along with the onion and bacon. Some other recipes follow below.
Click on site where you can find uncommon things like canned creasy greens, okra, boiled peanuts, Nehi, long-neck root beer and other regional foods.
Recipes: CREASY CONFETTI EGGS 4 eggs, beaten 2 to 3 tablespoons of milk salt and pepper to taste I cup of creasy greens, finely chopped 1 medium onion, minced 1 clove of garlic, minced 1/2 red bell pepper, finely chopped (optional) butter or oil for sauteing tamari to taste
Mix the beaten eggs together with the milk, salt, pepper, and greens. Then saute the onion, garlic, and red pepper in butter or oil over medium heat until the onions are transparent and the peppers are soft. Next, make sure that the saute pan is hot enough to make a drop of egg sizzle . . . add the egg mixture . . . and scramble everything together until the creasies turn bright green and the eggs firm up nicely. Sprinkle the confetti eggs with tamari and serve them over whole wheat toast.
CREASY QUICHE 1 clove of garlic, minced 1 cup of chopped onions 2 tablespoons of butter pie shell, uncooked (try using whole wheat flour) 1-1/4 cups of grated cheese (Monterey Jack or Swiss is good) 3 eggs, beaten 2-1/4 cups of milk 1/2 cup of powdered milk 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon of salt dash of pepper 1 to 2 cups of creasy greens, chopped
Preheat your oven to 350°F. Sauté the garlic and onions in butter and—after letting them cool awhile—spread them in the pie shell and sprinkle the grated cheese on top. Then mix the remaining ingredients and pour the concoction over the cheese (don't worry . . . the creasies will wilt and shrink as they cook). Bake the quiche for 40 to 45 minutes or until the crust is golden and the custard has set (a toothpick, when poked into the pie, should come out clean). Let the quiche cool before serving. http://www.motherearthnews.com/Real-Food/1984-03-01/Enjoy-Old-Time-Tennessee-Creasy-Greens.aspx
CHEESY CREASY CASSEROLE http://www.wildcrafting.com/board/viewtopic.php?t=528 2 cups cooked rice (1/2 c. raw) 2 Tbsp butter or margarine 2 cups shredded cheese 1/3 cup minced wild or green onion 2 cups half- n- half or evap. milk 2 cloves garlic, minced 2 eggs ½ cup parboiled creasy greens 2 Tbsp. ketchup 1/3 cup chopped parsley 1 tsp salt
Mix first six ingredients in a large bowl. Melt butter in skillet; add green onion and garlic; sauté lightly. Stir in well-drained creasy green and parsley. Add to rice mixture. Pour into greased baking dish. Place dish in lager pan containing water to depth of one inch. Bake in preheated 350º oven for 30-45 minutes or until set.
Thanks to begoniacrazi for the photo of the variegated Barbarea from PlantFiles. Watercress iStockphoto #: 2028927, Used by Permission Dinner Time iStockphoto #: 1920849, Used by Permission Healthy salad iStockphoto #: 2729351, Used by Permission The other photos are by the author
About Darius Van d'Rhys
I have a 'growing my own food' obsession that comes from my overlapping interests in cooking, nutrition and gardening. I am also a "teacher", a writer, a builder… and a craftsperson and... and… and many other things, LOL. In fact, I guess I am a generalist, and a Seeker.
I live in the southern Appalachian Mountains on a hillside with a creek in front, and drive a 15 year old truck I lovingly call “My Farmer’s Ferrari.”