Pacific waterleaf, virginia waterleaf and western waterleaf are great wild native vegetables

Pacific Waterleaf, Virginia Waterleaf and Western Waterleaf – 3 Fantastic Wild Native Vegetables

Growing vegetables in the shade is often a challenge, but there are 3 fantastic wild native vegetables that can fill this niche on your property. These are Pacific waterleaf, western waterleaf and Virginia waterleaf. Let’s dive into these fantastic shade loving wild native vegetables.


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When I first learned about Pacific waterleaf a few years ago, I couldn’t believe it.

It’s edible. It’s beautiful. It grows well in the shade!

I really love this fantastic wild native vegetable, and each year I try to add more of it to my property.

As a grower or gardener, I’m sure you know that the shady areas are often a struggle to get a harvest from.

You plant a fruit tree, but what do you do in the shady area below it? Or what about the shady side of a hedgerow? Often these areas go under-utilized since most traditional food crops need more sun then these spots provide.

This is where you can learn from nature by taking a walk in the woods and seeing what grows in those shady areas.

Across much of the United States, you’ll find waterleaf plants growing in these areas (assuming there’s enough moisture.)

Luckily, these plants are also edible, and in my opinion they’re a fantastic green.

Let’s dive into these great plants. But before we do, don’t forget about all the other fantastic wild native vegetables growing in your area. Waterleaf is just one of many great wild native vegetables you likely have growing in your area. Grab your free and easy-to-print cheat-sheet all about native wild vegetables to help you get started.

Where Waterleafs Like to Grow

Grow Pacific waterleaf in your shady spots

I’m slowly adding Pacific waterleaf to all my shady, well-mulched areas. Over time, these plants are spreading and filling in these niches, providing a great early spring harvest.

Right now, the Pacific waterleafs in my area are still just coming up with nice soft leaves. I’m super excited to see how much larger some of my waterleaf patches are this year compared to last.

While a bit slow to get established, over time, waterleafs will spread from a single plant to cover a decent area.

So what makes waterleafs happy?

Pacific waterleaf (Hydrophyllum tenuipes), Virginia waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum), and western waterleaf (Hydrophyllum occidentale) all grow in similar habitats. All 3 are generally found in moist forests under the shade of tall, established trees.

Virginia waterleaf and western waterleaf both grow in parts of the United States that tend to be drier and warmer than here in western Washington. Because of this, both species are found close to streams and other waterbodies in forested areas.

But a well-mulched, shady food forest will likely support these types of waterleaf. The shady side of your house is also a great place to try growing waterleafs—especially if you can capture the runoff from your roof to help water them and create a cool, moist micro-climate.

Pacific waterleaf, on the other hand, doesn’t tend to grow near streams or other waterbodies. Instead, it loves to grow in rich shady forest soils at the base of large conifers and deciduous trees.

Spring sunshine doesn’t seem to bother Pacific waterleaf, as long as it’s well mulched and has summer shade.

The key for these 3 waterleafs is to plant them in well-mulched, shady areas.

Where Pacific Waterleaf, Virginia Waterleaf and Western Waterleaf are Native

Native range map for Pacific, Virginia and western waterleafs

This range map shows where Pacific waterleaf, Virginia waterleaf, and western waterleaf are native. Green for Virginia waterleaf, orange for western waterleaf, blue for Pacific waterleaf, and purple for areas where western and Pacific waterleafs overlap.

Waterleafs are native across much of the United States, and the above map shows the general areas for each.

But you should also check out the following USDA links to zoom in and check your specific county to see if waterleaf is found in your area. As long as you are within a county of a recognized population of waterleaf, I think you’re safe considering that waterleaf as being native for your property.

  1. Pacific Waterleaf - Range Information
  2. Virginia Waterleaf - Range Information
  3. Western Waterleaf - Range Information

Wild Tip: Why Native Plants Mater

Why do native plants mater? Native plants support picky insects that depend on that specific type of plant for their survival. Monarch butterflies and milkweed is the classic example, but approximately 90% of plant eating insects are picky specialists.

By planting native plants, you support these picky insects which in turn support a wide range of other wildlife, which includes predators that will also eat the bugs that eat your traditional garden vegetables.  

Learn more by checking out these blog posts about native plants:

  1. Why Native Plants Matter (And Why You Need Them)
  2. How to Find Native Plants for Your Property
  3. 5 Ways Your Property Will Benefit from Native Plants

And you can also check out the great book Bringing Nature Home, by Douglas Tallamy to learn more about the importance of native plants for supporting your local wildlife.

Gardening and Harvesting Waterleafs

Grow waterleafs in the shade

This shady area under a cherry tree and on the shady side of a hedgerow is a great spot for Pacific waterleaf. I’ve transplanted a number of Pacific waterleaf to this area, and I can’t wait till they fill it all in.

Whichever waterleaf you decide to grow, I wouldn’t stick it in your garden. While waterleafs are a fantastic wild native vegetable, their claim to fame is their ability to grow in those shady areas where many other vegetables struggle.

Find those full-shade areas and plant your waterleafs there. Just make sure to mulch them well. And if you live in a desert, these plants are likely not a good fit, since they’re all forest plants.

So how do you harvest your waterleaf?

Well, first make sure to give your new plant a year or 2 to get established and to spread before you make any large harvests. Treat it like you would asparagus—give it time to get established.

Once your waterleaf is established, you can start harvesting the young leaves. These leaves can be eaten raw or cooked like you would spinach.

I’ve only eaten Pacific waterleaf. To be honest, they’re a little fuzzy. But it’s actually pretty easy to get past that, and then they’re a good mild green for salads and for cooking with. The roots can also be harvested and sautéed up with a flavor similar to Chinese beansprouts.

Pacific waterleaf is also a great an early spring green that pops up around the same time as nettles.

Older leaves can also be eaten, but they get large and tougher. Though if your waterleaf is in a shady and moist area, you will be able to get harvests from spring until the fall frosts.

Here are some great links to learn more about how to use Pacific waterleaf, Virginia waterleaf, and western waterleaf.

Wild Tip:

Look for native plant nurseries in your area to purchase waterleaf. For Pacific waterleaf, you can find it from Native Foods Nursery, and from Fourth Corner Nursery.

Otherwise, you can also salvage waterleaf from forested areas. Salvage from the edges of an established patch and take only a few plants. These plants will spread and create your own patches overtime.

Are you excited about growing waterleaf? Please leave a comment letting me know which waterleaf is native in your area and if you have ever tried harvesting it.

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Daron is a restoration ecologist, lifelong gardener, and founder of Growing with Nature. He created this site to help people enjoy wildlife, grow food, and help heal our living world. He has managed the restoration program for a local non-profit, and he’s applying principles of restoration and permaculture to transform his property in western Washington to forests, wetlands, hedgerows, food forests, and permaculture gardens. He holds a Masters in Environmental Studies and an Associate of Applied Science degree in Water Resources. He loves sharing the joy of growing food with his two beautiful children.

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