This herb has an illustrious and long history, and there is evidence of its use dating back 3 millennia to the Persians, Greeks, and Romans. Although it is believed to have originated in Ancient Greece, watercress still remains an integral part of Mediterranean diets today. In moderately cool climates it can be seen growing wild, partially submerged in slow running water and seasonally flooded areas. The water in which it grows arises from chalk and limestone soils, which provide its necessary calcium nutrients. The Persians observed that soldiers were healthier when watercress was part of their daily diet, and the Persian King Xerxes ordered his soldiers to eat watercress to keep them healthy during their long marches. The Greeks were no strangers to the health benefits of watercress either, and Western medicine can be traced back to Hippocrates, a Greek physician who lived in the 4th century BC and later became known as the father of Western medicine. He believed that disease had natural causes and used various plant-based remedies in his treatments. Hippocrates was particularly convinced of the health benefits of watercress, a plant he often referred to as the "cure of cures"; and the first hospital he built in Kos, Greece, was close to a natural spring where he could grow watercress to help treat his patient’s blood disorders. The Greeks also had a saying that “Eating cress makes one witty.” The Romans utilized the strong peppery taste of watercress in salads where only olive oil and vinegar were added.
The herbalist John Gerard celebrated watercress as a remedy for scurvy as early as 1636. And according to the book “James Cook and the Conquest of Scurvy”, Cook was able to circumnavigate the globe three times, due in part to his use of watercress in his sailor’s diets. This peppery little herb was becoming popular everywhere and was first grown in Erfurt, Germany, in the middle of the 16th century by Nicholas Messier. In the United Kingdom, watercress was first commercially cultivated in 1808 along the River Ebbsfleet in Kent, by the horticulturist William Bradbery. Watercress is now grown in a number of counties like Hertfordshire, Hampshire, Wiltshire and Dorset, but Alresford is considered to be the nation's watercress capital. The success of the watercress trade was very much entwined with the British railways. In 1865 the “Mid-Hants Railway” or “Watercress Line” was opened, connecting Alresford to London and giving watercress growers the opportunity to get their crop fresh to the London markets. In Victorian Britain watercress was called “the poor man’s bread” because it provided the working class with a good portion of cheap nutrition for the day. Watercress would be sold by street vendors, who often were children, and the herb was tied into posies and eaten “on-the-go” for breakfast, or, if you were lucky enough to afford a loaf, between two slices of bread. In Southern England, watercress tea was popular, made with a dash of lemon and sugar.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that large scale commercial cultivation of watercress began. It was introduced into the West Indies, South America, Canada and the United States, where it was naturalized. Today, the world’s biggest watercress growers are in the United States, because it has plenty of running water, combined with the right climatic conditions in which watercress thrives.
Brimming with more than 15 essential vitamins and minerals, gram for gram, watercress contains more vitamin C than oranges, more calcium than milk, more iron than spinach and more folate than bananas. This super-healthy plant will help to keep you in tiptop shape and ranks at the top of many superfood lists. It is still used to prevent and heal a vast range of ailments, with modern herbal medicine recognizing the blood cleansing and anti-inflammatory properties of watercress. Many herbalists recommend eating the fresh leaves to alleviate eczema; and due to its high concentration of vitamin C, it has also been used to treat cold symptoms such as runny nose and coughs. Because watercress is high in vitamin C and vitamin K, two key anti-bruising nutrients, it is valuable to treat people prone to this.
DNA damage is an indicator of a person's overall cancer risk, and researchers have found that the daily consumption of watercress will reduce DNA damage in blood cells. This is largely due to a special mustard oil called “phenethyl isothiocyanate” (PEITC) which is known to have significant anti-cancer properties. But the anti-cancer properties of watercress may also be attributable to its high levels of vitamin C, beta-carotene, and lutein. One study found that consumption of watercress increased test subjects' blood levels of lutein and beta-carotene by 100% and 33%, respectively.
Watercress, the green of dainty tea sandwiches, may have a reputation for being proper and stodgy but in reality, it's spring's liveliest green, and will supercharge everything it touches. The peppery heat of watercress comes from the plant’s mustard oils which are released when chewed, filling your mouth and nose with mustardy warmth and then refreshing it with the juicy stalks which are succulent and cool from the water in which it is grown. Watercress is wonderfully versatile, adding a delicate crunch to dishes when added raw and a delicious flavour when cooked. However, exposure to heat may inactivate the important chemical found in watercress known as PEITC, so for health purposes it is best eaten raw. Prepared either way, watercress provides the same unique taste and is a great addition to many dishes.
When purchasing watercress, go for crisp, dark green leaves, with no sign of yellowing or wilting. Wash and shake dry just before you're about to use it. Both the leaves and stems are edible - just trim off any tough roots.
Add flavour and crunch to sandwiches by chopping raw watercress into small pieces, mixing it with cream cheese and chives and spreading it on bread. Add a few fresh cucumber slices for a light sandwich that’s bursting with flavour. A watercress and egg sandwich is also a classic; mash 1 boiled egg with some mayonnaise and seasoning, spread over wholemeal bread and top with diced watercress.
Salads get supercharged with nutrients when made with watercress, and this can be as simple as adding freshly prepared watercress to your standard salads, or you can build a hearty salad around the plants unique flavour. Do your taste buds a favour and combine watercress with cucumbers, a touch of fennel and a sweet lime dressing, for a refreshingly different summer salad. Sweet fruits such as papaya, pomegranate, mandarins, or pear in a watercress salad will also help to balance its peppery taste. Try it in a rocket salad with orange segments, or an avocado salad with warm bacon. The peppery bite of watercress also goes really nicely with warm winter salads.
Take soups to the next level by chopping watercress into fine pieces and simmering it in chicken or vegetable stock. Puree in a blender or food processor and use it as a base for a heart-warming soup by adding a variety of herbs and chopped vegetables. For a hearty potato-watercress soup, puree boiled potatoes along with the watercress-infused stock.
Watercress is particularly good at cutting through fatty meats, and in Germany it is eaten with meats, sausages and smoked fish. With its refreshing flavour it is the perfect complement to rich tasting fish like sea trout or salmon. Watercress is so versatile it can be used in stir fries, chicken dishes, burgers, salsas, dips, butters or sauces. A quick and simple way to add watercress to your diet is to feature it in your next homemade pizza. It is mouth-watering with ricotta cheese, tomatoes, fresh basil, and a little pancetta. For a tasty variation, swap basil with watercress next time you make pesto – delicious stirred through pasta. For a quick quiche filling, whisk 2 eggs with 100ml milk. Season, then add chopped watercress, tomatoes and grated cheese. Pour filling over base and bake for 20 minutes.
Watercress is highly perishable, so store it in a perforated bag in the fridge and eat it within a couple of days. Alternatively, treat it like a bunch of flowers and put it in a glass of water in the fridge, covered with a plastic bag.
Watercress may have a reputation for being really difficult to grow because it is considered an aquatic or semi-aquatic perennial plant that is often found near slow-moving water. Nothing could be further from the truth, and there’s absolutely no reason why you can’t grow it in the garden, or in containers in your garden or home.
Although watercress grows wild in many parts of the world, watercress foraged from the wild may be contaminated with liver fluke (Fasciola hepatica), a parasitic worm that is hosted in the livers or bile ducts of livestock such as sheep and cattle. The adult fluke lays its eggs in the host animal’s gut and passes out through the faeces before hatching into larva. If contaminated manure washes into water, the larvae swim around and infest water snails where they develop further, before attaching themselves to plants growing in the water, such as grasses and cress. They encyst on the plant, and the fluke life cycle completes when the encysted larvae once again migrate through the gut wall and infest another host animal’s liver. You want to ensure that the host animal isn’t you, because in rare cases, liver fluke can kill! And, short of laboratory testing, there’s no real way of knowing whether cress is infested with fluke or not. Some people pick cress from pristine streams with livestock free headwaters. Others wash the cress in a mild bleach solution to kill the parasites. Cooked wild cress is generally safe to eat, but if eaten raw in salads, can pose a risk.
If you want a regular supply of watercress, growing your own is the safest and most economical method, and you don’t need a mountain stream to do it either! Growing watercress is so easy, and gardeners grow their own in all sorts of containers and ponds. You can simply grow it in a big pot with a saucer which is kept topped up with water, in an artificial bog garden, or just in moist garden soil. Of course, if you have a pristine, slow running stream on your property, watercress cultivation is about as simple as it gets. If you have a pond or water feature, it is also worthwhile trying to cultivate watercress as a marginal plant.
Watercress is a fast growing perennial, but is easiest to grow as an annual. The plant spreads exceptionally fast, and the most flavourful watercress is produced in spring and autumn. Because it loves cool weather, watercress is often started indoors in late winter and planted out in early spring, once all danger of frost is over. It is also planted out in autumn for a winter crop. If you are growing it as a perennial, after the summer growing season is over, watercress is surprisingly hardy during the winters. It can tolerate being frozen, though letting the water in your pool or bucket freeze can end up splitting the containers. To avoid this, leave your entire growing set-up in place until you start to get hard freezes each night. Then drain out the larger pool, and leave the actual watercress pots somewhere sheltered. Until the pots actually freeze for the winter, add extra water each day so they don’t dry out. Once frozen, they should be fine until spring. Once they start to thaw, slowly add more water again until the frosts have passed and you can replace their entire “pool of water”.
Watercress loves a sunny position in the garden, but if you are growing it in very hot and dry summer regions, a cooler semi-shaded position would be best. Watercress will grow in a variety of soils, as long as they are moist and organically rich. The ideal soil pH is between 6.5 and 7.5. Potting soil works just fine, but compost, peat moss and even vermiculite can be added. It is important to keep the soil moist at all times, and you may have to water the plants daily.
The plant is easy to start from seed which can be ordered online or purchased from garden centres. If you can’t find watercress seeds, you can also start growing your own from mature watercress purchased at a supermarket or farmer’s market. Just soak the base of the stalks in a glass of water, placed on a sunny windowsill for a few days to encourage root growth, and then plant them in the soil or containers as you would from seed.
Watercress varieties abound, but the most common home grown variety is Nasturtium officinale. You can germinate your seeds in trays indoors, but the fine roots make transplanting difficult, so it is often easier to sow directly into garden beds or pots. Seeds germinate best in cool but not frigid conditions (10 to 15°C), and because they are so tiny, they need to be lightly broadcast over the prepared site and covered with a thin layer of soil. Keep the planting area moist until germination, which should occur within about 5 to 10 days. If you are transplanting, space the plants about 20cm apart, once all danger of frost has passed.
In the garden, you can dig a furrow, 15 to 20cm deep and wide and line it with fairly thick black plastic. Do not poke drainage holes into the plastic. Fill with soil and water well before sowing or planting out. In the garden, keep the area around the plants free from weeds and mulch regularly to aid in water retention.
If you are growing cress in containers, choose a fairly large container that is at least 15 to 20cm deep; with drainage holes. It is important to add a layer of landscaper’s cloth and pieces of broken pots or small pebbles to the bottom of the container to allow for good drainage and to keep the potting mix from escaping when you water. Plastic containers are recommended over terracotta ones, which can dry out too quickly for watercress. To ensure drying out does not occur, place the container directly in a large drip tray filled with water. You can also use window boxes, or multiple containers placed together in one very large drainage tray. Fill the growing container with potting mix, a soilless mixture that drains well and contains peat moss and perlite or vermiculite can also be used. Leave approximately 5cm of space to the top rim of the container and water the soil well. Sow or plant as for those growing in garden beds and then water thoroughly until the water fills the drainage tray below. Place the container in semi-shade if you are growing cress in summer, and where it receives at least 6 hours sunlight a day if you are growing it in winter. Water and feed as for cress growing in the garden. Because watercress needs fresh water constantly, replace the water in the drainage tray with fresh water every two to three days, and if you are growing it in a pond or similar deep container with standing water, you will need to drain the water every two to three days and add fresh water. If you do not, and the water sit for too long and stagnates, your plants will become stunted and may even die.
Watercress does not have a high nutrient requirement. However, cultivated watercress may show phosphorus, potassium or iron deficiencies. Phosphate deficient plants are stunted and dark coloured. Symptoms of potassium deficiency are marginal scorching on older leaves. Iron deficient leaves, common in the winter, are expressed as yellowing between the veins on the newer foliage. Mixing a complete soluble fertiliser with the water at the recommended rates minimizes these problems.
Watercress grows quickly and you can start harvesting about 3 weeks after sowing by snipping off leaves as required. The flavour of watercress is best during the cool months of the year, but harvesting can continue all year round. Once the plant blossoms, however, the flavour is compromised and the leaves become bitter. So, if small white flowers appear, trim them back with gardening scissors to encourage new growth. The beauty of growing watercress is that cutting or pruning the plants will encourage them to grow even thicker. Cut down to a height of about 10cm and avoid taking more than a third of any plant to allow the plants enough foliage to continue growing.
Watercress has no specific disease problems in most production settings. White flies, spider mites and snails are some of the more common insect problems. White flies are found underneath the leaves and can be controlled with soapy water or insecticidal soap. Spider mites cause flecking, discoloration and scorching of the leaves, and severe infestations can even lead to the death of the plant. Snails can be removed by hand or caught in traps. Flea beetles and mustard beetles can do a lot of damage to your plants by chewing on the leaves. The easiest way to get rid of these small beetles is to dunk your entire pot of watercress underwater for about an hour. It won’t harm the plant (though some soil may wash away if you’re not careful), and the insects will either drown or be washed off the plants. Some gardeners will plant a few extra radishes nearby to attract these same insects away from their watercress plants.
Nasturtium officinale is mildly noxious and may cause gastrointestinal upset for your pet. If consumed in large quantities it can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea. Kidney and thyroid damage may occur with repeated or excessively large exposures or in animals with weakened systems.
The information contained within this website is for educational purposes only, recording the traditional uses of specific plants as recorded through history. Always seek advice from a medical practitioner before starting a home treatment programme.