Information, history and recipes about Watercress
Watercress (Nasturtium officinale) is best known as a salad
vegetable but is botanically classed as a herb. It belongs to the family
Cruciferea (Brassicaceae) along with other vegetables such as cabbage,
broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower and kale and is related to
mustard. An aquatic or semi-aquatic hardy perennial, it can be found
growing naturally in profusion near springs and running water such as
and History of Watercress
Native to Europe and central Asia, watercress one of the oldest known leaf
vegetables known to man and can be traced back more than 3,000 years, to the
Persians and Ancient Greeks.
Not only is it mentioned in Cretan legend where it is said to have been eaten by
the god Zeus for fortification, but it has also been well documented certainly
as far back as 485BC when Xerxes, a Persian Emperor ordered that his soldiers be
given watercress to keep them healthy during their long marches and as a
preventative against scurvy and further when Hippocrates is said to have grown
watercress for medicinal purposes on the Island of Kos around 400 BC where he
founded the first hospital.
The Romans too revered watercress and it is said that Emperors would eat it to
enable them to make “bold” decisions. Anglo-Saxons made watercress broth to
‘spring clean’ the blood and it is believed that Irish monks called it “pure
foods for sages” and survived for long periods eating only bread and watercress.
Many people think of watercress as being a particularly British ingredient.
Watercress soup, which gained favour in the 1700s in England is still a
favourite. Indeed, at one time it played a significant part in the diets of the
working classes who often ate it with bread for breakfast. It was so popular
that some more enterprising people bought it in bulk from the markets then
formed it into “one portion” bunches which they would sell on to individuals as
handheld “food on the go”.
Watercress has seen a surge in popularity in the last few years, especially
since Liz Hurley (actress) mentioned in 2001 that she relies on watercress to
maintain a nutritious diet. More recently, (February 2007) the results from two
years’ research carried out by the University of Ulster showed it to have
extraordinary medicinal qualities, in particular relating to the reduction in
DNA damage to white blood cells, considered to be an important trigger in the
development of cancer.
Furthermore, watercress contains beta-carotene, a host of vitamins (A, C, B1,
B6, K and E), iron (more than spinach) , calcium (more than milk), magnesium,
manganese, zinc, Lutein and Zeaxanthin, types of carotenoids that act as
antioxidants. Add to those the fact that it's low in calories and it's easy to
see why it has gained the accolade of being a "super food".
The fact that watercress wasn't commercially produced until the 1800s tells us
something about its cultivation. Being a semi aquatic plant, it's not easy for
most of us to grow and even if you are lucky enough to own a spring or stream,
the fact that it's susceptible to river fluke and poisoning through contaminated
water can make it a difficult plant to cultivate.
An alternative for home cultivation is land cress which is generally considered
a reasonable substitute for watercress and can be grown easily in the garden or
in pots. Also a perennial, it requires semi shade and a moist soil, however it
doesn't like to be waterlogged for long periods of time. You can find full
growing instructions on our
In the UK, much of the commercially cultivated watercress is is grown in shallow
gravel beds. These are fed by a constant flow of spring water from springs and
bore-holes which is chalk filtered. The seeds are germinated on thin layers of
compost in greenhouses and polytunnels and then transplanted into the gravel
beds by hand.