What is Watercress?

Mary Elizabeth

Watercress, a green in the mustard family, is related to collards and kale, but has a life far away from the greens and pork of Southern-style cooking. Many people may associate watercress with beautiful sandwiches made for tea, but that’s only one area in which it shines.

Watercress gets its name because it grows in shallow stream beds.
Watercress gets its name because it grows in shallow stream beds.

Watercress is a European perennial herb, Nasturtium officinale, that has been naturalized in the US and is also cultivated. It is not related to the flower called nasturtium. In nature, it is often found near streams and creeks. It prefers to grow in shallow water and in cool weather. Watercress can be started from seed indoors and transferred outdoors to stream beds. It should be harvested before it blooms, and should be stored in the refrigerator, but not for too long. It needs to be thoroughly washed before using.

Peppery watercress can be added to green salads.
Peppery watercress can be added to green salads.

Known for its peppery taste, watercress is used as a green and as a garnish. It is often used to spice up sandwiches and appears frequently in salads, where it is usually combined with some vegetable or greens having a milder flavor or with citrus fruit. It can also be wilted and served as a green, used to season dumplings or savory mousse, or serve as an ingredient in soups ranging from Chinese watercress soup to cold cream of watercress soup to potato, leek, watercress soup.

Watercress is related to kale.
Watercress is related to kale.

Watercress is probably the most popular of the cresses, and for many people may be the only recognizable one. Others include pepper cress or sai yeung choy, Lepidum sativum; wintercress or yellow rocket, Barbarea vulgaris; and upland cress or land cress, Barbarea verna. Pepper cress is primarily grown in northwestern Europe, where it is harvested as sprouts. Wintercress is a hardy plant, high in vitamin C, that grows in Eurasia, North Africa, and the Appalachians. Land cress, unlike the other cresses, grows on land and is grown in southwestern Europe and England.

Historically, watercress was used to treat scurvy. Called “St. Patrick’s Cabbage” in Ireland, it is thought be some to be the plant designated by the term shamrock. The Greek general Xenophon made his soldiers eat it in the 4th century B.C., and the Romans tried it as a baldness prevention.

Watercress can be used like other greens or as a garnish.
Watercress can be used like other greens or as a garnish.

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Discussion Comments


@irontoenail - You an always try growing it yourself. I've never done it but it's supposed to be pretty easy if you have room for a hydroponic setup. And that way you'd know you were getting fresh, organic watercress every time.


@Mor - The only problem with watercress is that it doesn't store very well. Within a few days it starts to go off and, while there will usually be some leaves still in the bunch that are worth eating, you basically have to pick through it to get them and it takes forever. So I would suggest, if someone is buying it, that they not get very much at a time and use it when it is as fresh as possible.


Watercress is very good for you. It doesn't just have vitamin C, it also has a range of B vitamins and other nutrients, as well as fiber and a bit of iron as well.

If you aren't sure how to cook it, just wash off the leaves, and clip any stems that are particularly long. Remove anything that looks withered, yellow or has lost shape. You don't have to remove the stems, but some people prefer to just eat the leaves, so that's up to you.

Then you can basically treat it like spinach. Ideally for nutrition, you steam it lightly and eat it like that. If you boil it, some of the vitamins will go into the water, so you won't get the whole effect. But it's still good for you no matter which way you eat it.

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