“ Watercress (Nasturtium nasturtium-aquaticum, N. microphyllum) are fast-growing, aquatic or semi-aquatic, perennials native from Europe to central Asia and one of the oldest known leaf vegetables consumed by human beings. These plants are members of the Family Brassicaceae or cabbage family, botanically related to garden cress and mustard all noteworthy for a peppery, tangy flavor. „
Watercress (Rorippa aquaticum) is a salad plant fairly unsuitable for cultivation in most people's gardens, as it flourishes best when growing with its 'feet wet' - ideally in shallow, slowly running water.
It can however, be purchased ready-bagged in supermarkets (expect to pay about the £1 mark for a salad-bag sized packet of it) and better yet readily harvested from the wild - although potential free-food enthusiasts should be aware that it has a number of wild lookalikes that grow in similar habitats, including at least one similar-looking species (Berula, the water parsnip) which is deadly poisonous.
Watercress proper typically grows in a sprawling, horizontal-stemmed habit, loosely rooted in the silt at the edges of streams and ditches. It's a relatively common plant that frequently forms large, dense banks or drifts at the edges of streams - although these watercress beds are commonly interspersed with other plants, many of which can be confused for watercress. With watercress, the leaves grow in pairs and are usually rounded at the ends, and often the whole plant has a bronze or purplish tint to it. Fool's watercress, which is another common plant that often grows alongside watercress proper, looks very similar but has more of a squarish leaf-profile and more symmetrical appearance. It is reputedly edible - or at least, non-poisonous, although I have not (knowingly) tried it myself. Like watercress, the deadly poisonous water parsnip also often has purplish colouring on the leaves.
Wild watercress is best eaten after it has been cooked, as the hollow stems of the plants are said to harbour the larvae of liver-fluke, which may be present in watercourses that have flowed through or alongside domestic sheep pastures. Apparently a minute or so of cooking in boiling water is enough to kill any fluke larvae that may be present, hence wild watercress soup - or a stir-fry - is a good option.
While watercress may not be a good garden plant, the similar / related land cress is apparently a possible alternative, which can be grown in standard garden soil and eaten cooked or in salads in exactly the same way as its aquatic relative. Personally I haven't had much success growing land cress - the plants I produced were stunted and too fibrous to be edible.
The Wonders of Watercress!
I love watercress and have been eating it for years. It is extremely nutritious, cheap and may even help to prevent cancer so why is it such a forgotten salad vegetable? I think the simple reason is that it is more often than not sold in bags in supermarkets, and whilst I do buy it this way unless you select the newly delivered bags or shop in Waitrose you often find it doesn't keep all that well. This is difficult because we are all so busy and trying to watch the pennies that wasting food is simply not acceptable. If you can go to your local greengrocer you will be able to pick actual bunches tied up and these are the best as they are bought daily and are the freshest you can buy.
Recently on holiday and passing through the Isle of Skye I was able to buy some grown hydroponically and it was the most delicate and beautifully flavoured I have ever tried- so look out for this. The organic watercress sold in Waitrose from John Hurd's farm is delicious too. Sometimes our local greengrocer has some from Aquitaine in France, and this is also really lovely especially good to look out for if you don't like the intense peppery flavour.
Most of the watercress eaten in The UK is grown in Hampshire near to the village of Alresford (which is known as the capital of watercress) and in nearby Dorset and it is here that three firms Vitacress, The Watercress Company and Bakkavor have formed an alliance to promote the health and taste benefits of watercress. Each year there is a festival in May to celebrate watercress and the Watercress Heritage Railway which acquired its name because it was used to transport all the watercress to the markets in Covent Garden.
Watercress is grown in spring water on shallow gravel beds and for this reason cultivation in the home garden is difficult.
The plant has a long and interesting history beginning in 400bc on the Greek island of Kos where Hippocrates is said to have located his first hospital next to a stream so that he could grow watercress to treat his patients. The Romans and the Anglo Saxons ate it because they said it helped to prevent baldness! By Victorian times it was reputed to be a treatment for toothache and for freckles and hiccups!
In the 19th century it was an integral part of the working class diet especially in families too poor to buy bread. They would often eat it by itself like an ice cream and would chew a big bunch for breakfast- I'm not sure I would like this!
It is in recent times though on a serious note that scientists have been looking into the possible anti cancer properties of eating watercress. The three companies mentioned above commissioned a study into the health benefits of eating watercress in 2007 through Ulster University and the research yielded some promising results.
It was found that eating watercress daily significantly reduced the DNA damage to blood cells and also that it enabled those blood cells not to succumb to the further damage caused by free radicals. This study was on 30 men and 30 women including 30 smokers who ate watercress for 8 weeks. The interesting point here is that the best benefits were in the group who smoked. Amongst the main findings the scientists discovered that there was also a fall in their harmful fat levels in the blood and an increase in their circulating antioxidants especially of carotene and lutein. Lutein is thought to be a protective chemical in relation to cataract and macular degeneration of the eye both really unpleasant to have.
Further studies by others have indicated a possible reduction in bowel cancer too. This is also true of many leafy green vegetables and I think it may be wise for us to include some each day. Kale is also a good alternative as it is quick to cook-only a couple of minutes!
It is certainly a superfood and contains vitamin A C, B1, B6, K and E, iron, calcium, magnesium, manganese and zinc. It actually has more iron than spinach, more vitamin c than oranges, more foliate than bananas and more calcium than milk!
So having got your watercress and apart from adding it to sandwiches what can you do with it? Well I make it into soup but I don't make the full of calories and fat versions which you normally buy full of cream and butter. I actually make a very simple cheap and delicious soup which all the family love and the great thing is it might even shift a bit of Christmas weight!
Before you start if you have bought the watercress in a bunch please wash it over and over again as tiny little wormy creatures often pop out when you least expect it and this is in my opinion the reason why you have to be vigilant. Not so common in the bagged versions but still look carefully. One other small warning there is a minute risk that you may pick up Sheep Liver Fluke from eating watercress- it is not common but it is the only way that humans in the UK are infected with the parasite. A snail that loves watercress, breeding on it and eating it, can transmit liver fluke to humans. Most of this cultivated watercress is free of this risk but some cases have occurred and for this reason eating wild watercress is not recommended.
So to make my soup!
A large bunch of watercress or two small ones
2 pints of vegetable stock. Oxo cubes are good for this as they have a good flavour.
I large onion
Lots of salt and pepper.
Fry the onion for a few minutes till soft and add the washed watercress. Then add the stock and cook for a few minutes. Timing here isn't too important as you are going to liquidize it so I would say about 10 is perfect. Add plenty of salt and freshly ground black pepper. Liquidise and serve. Don't purée for too long as it is nice to have a more textured soup. This is fat free and delicious and really great with crusty bread. Makes 3 good portions.
If you visit www.watercress.co.uk you can find a wealth of information and more recipes too!
Watercress is one of my favourite foods. It comes in big cellophane packs from supermarkets like Tesco and Marks & Spencer. I particulary like the one stocked by M&S in early summer onwards. It is imported from Portugal because our own watercress season doesn't start until later in year.
This is a leafy salad vegetable that has a peppery taste to it. It is great in salads, or in sandwiches. My favourite way of using it is to put it into sandwiches with Marmite. This is an extremely tasty and nutritious way to eat it, not to mention its befits if you are a diet.
Watercress is grown in or near water and it was first introduced to England by the Romans. It is a greeny brown colour and grows along the surface in a kind of creeping way. It is a member of the nasturtium family and similar heart shaped leaves. The larger leaves are at the ends of the stems.
This does grow wild but some people find it difficult to distinguish from fools cress, or Marshwort which is poisonous if eaten. Marshwort has more pointed, thinner leaves but the best rule here is to leave alone unless you are a hundred percent certain.
As a salad, watercress is said to improve appetite and if you bruise it apply to the skin it is claimed that it will help to soothe blemishes.
This plant is easy to grow but you need fresh running water like a cool stream to do it, so that cuts out most of us. It is quite expensive to buy and a large bag of it cost me £1.49 in M&S. This will be lovely in salads for two days, then the remainder can be used in watercress soup which can be eaten hot, or cool.
This is worth buying for change of salad greens but it doesn't keep very long. Once you have opened it you need to roll the top of the bag down and store in the fridge like that. If you seal it up again it will go soggy and slimy very quickly.