(Lepidium sativum ssp. sativum— Family Cruciferae [Brasicaceae])
Cress, garden cress, pepper cress are commons name given to small-leafed plants in the Mustard family. All have a peppery tang obtained from the mustard side of the family.
Cress is the most important of the eighty or so different species of the genus Lepidium of the Mustard family.
In Denmark, Belgium, Holland, France, and England, there are enormous horticultural centers specializing exclusively in its year-round cultivation.
This fast-growing plant is never allowed to grow to its full capacity of one or two feet, but is always harvested two to three days after germination.
Cress is a single species of African origin, but known by a myriad of common names, leaf shapes, and sizes.
This large group can be broken down into four basic types: common cress, curled cress, broadleafed cress, and golden cress, which are harvested tiny as sprouts. What they do have in common is their hot-sweet, peppery bite distinct from watercress and tasting more like fresh horseradish than greens.
Wintercress, common wintercress, yellow rocket, bitter cress, poorman’s cabbage (Barbarea vulgaris – Family Cruciferae [Brassicaceae])
As its name suggests, this type of cress is a winter-hardy wild plant with simple or slightly feather-like leaves and delicate edible yellow flowers. It grows in southwestern Europe, Asia, and North Africa on roadsides and in moist clay soils. Growing to two feet in height, it can be gathered all winter in the southern US Appalachians. It has been cultivated on a small scale only in France and North America. It does look like a rocket (see arugula) and is crossed with watercress, tasting much like it, but stronger. Wintercress has a rather pungent flavour, but it is included in salad mixtures for its extraordinarily high vitamin C content. Cooked, it is prepared like turnip greens or collards. To be eaten raw, however, it must be picked when very tiny; otherwise, it becomes too bitter and requires cooking.
Land cress, upland cress, American cress, Belle Isle cress, scurvy grass (Barbarea verna or B. praecox – Family Cruciferae [Brasicaceae])
Land cress is a hardy biennial or a short-lived perennial that grows on land and not in the water. It is a good source of iron, calcium, beta carotene, and vitamin C. Native to southwestern Europe, land cress has been cultivated as a salad crop in England since the 17th century. It is still common in the wild and a popular American crop, although in the wild, the leaves are much larger. The peppery leaves make a good substitute for watercress, and can be eaten raw or lightly cooked and added to dishes. The flavour is close to that of watercress, but more subtle and enjoyed more when it is young and small.
Nasturtium, Indian cress, Peruvian cress, garden nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus – Family Tropaeolaceae)
This type of cress originated in South America. It is the only non-cruciferous cress, although it tastes as though it should belong. The plant was introduced into Europe from Peru in 1684, and has since supplied the south of France with its yellow-to-scarlet flowers that many assume are native. Previously marketed as cress in the US, nasturtium still appears in markets, but less often as a vegetable and more often for their peppery-flavoured edible flowers.
Watercress, water cress, summer cress, broadleaf cress, cressida, curly cress (Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum or Nasturtium officinale – Family Cruciferae [Brassicaceae])
Watercress is related to the garden flower nasturtium, but is from a different genus. Pliny records the Latin derivation of its original generic name as Nasus tortus meaning “writhing nose”, referring to its spicy taste and pungent odour. Watercress also shares a kinship with the mustard side of the cruciferous plants.
This highly nutritious aquatic herb is a native of Europe, North Africa, and Asia, and has been cultivated as a salad plant since Roman times, but now grown throughout the world in temperate zones.
In North America and New Zealand, it is looked on as a weed; but, in China, this “water vegetable” often has to compete for space with rice. This herbaceous aquatic plant sends out shoots which creep along the bottom of ponds and springs. Its hollow stems grow up over the water’s surface to bear dark green and highly nutritious leaves – at least, they were before the days of polluted waters.
Hunting wild water cress is becoming a dangerous pastime with the prevalence of polluted waterways. Therefore, it is best to stay with a known cultivated source.
Watercress must be thoroughly washed as it is a noted haven for such parasites as the liver fluke, known to infest water frequented by animals.
Watercress produces small, whitish-green flowers in flat-topped clusters from mid-spring to early autumn; and, unless harvested frequently to prevent these flowers from forming, the leaves will become less tender. The best watercress is grown in pure, fast-flowing, chalk or limestone streams with slightly alkaline water. This avoids the risk of contamination from pollution.
Officinale is a name often applied to plants with medicinal uses, and watercress has been valued for its medicinal qualities since antiquity. As a member of the Cruciferous family, it also contains the same powerful antioxidants and phytochemicals that help reduce the risk of cancers and heart disease.
Watercress is a good “spring tonic” and blood cleanser and a favourite for such in southern China, where it is believed that it provides the needed interior balance with its cooling aspects. It has been eaten to cure rheumatism and used as a diuretic and expectorant. It is also a stimulant and a digestive tonic, helping to counteract anemia and lower blood sugar levels.
Watercress was often used as a poultice to heal glandular tumors and lymphatic swellings. In the past, in isolated parts of the British Isles, where the diet was predominantly shellfish and salt meat, it was grown to prevent scurvy, as mentioned by Phillip Miller in his Gardener’s Dictionary of 1731. Watercress is a good source of beta carotene, vitamins C and E, calcium, iron, and iodine.
In Ireland, watercress is also known as “St. Patrick’s Cabbage” and mentioned in early Irish poetry from about the 12th century. Early referrences to the shamrock are thought actually to have been watercress. Evidence to support this comes from Ireland’s County Meath and Shamrock Well, whose watercress was still remembered in the 1940s as being the finest in the district.
The first records of commercial cultivation are from Germany about 1750, France between 1800 and 1811, and England about 1808. Before that, the Greek historian and general Xenophon, in the 4th century BCE, recommended it as both a food and a medicine and made his soldiers eat it as a tonic. The Romans and Anglo-Saxons ate it to prevent baldness. In 1633, it was recommended for a disease called “greensickness of maidens”. Francis Bacon was convinced it would restore youth to aging women.
Watercress has dime-sized dark green, glossy leaves and leggy stems and often sold with its stems soaking in water in the salad sections of grocery stores. It is not a good keeper, so must be used immediately. All of it is edible, although most choose not to eat the stems.
It does need to be washed thoroughly and patted dry before using. The classic use of watercress is in sandwiches served during English teatimes. Cooking produces a milder flavour and, along with leeks, makes a good addition to soups. Citrus and watercress also make a good pair in salads.