What is Watercress?

A favorite with the English, this leafy green spice can be traced back to the Greeks, Romans, and Persians who used it for medical purposes, as a treatment (with vinegar) for insanity, as a stimulant, and as a breath freshener. Watercress belongs to the cabbage family, along with mustard, horseradish, and wasabi.

Soldiers and sailors ate it to treat scurvy. Referred to as the poor man’s food in England, in the early 1800s, watercress sandwiches were a staple breakfast for the working class. Brought by European immigrants to the United States in mid-1800s, it has become a popular garnish and vegetable for North Americans. It is also a popular seasoning with Chinese and Vietnamese who add it to soups and stir-fries.

Origin and Varieties

Watercress is native to western Asia but cultivated in Europe, United States, and Asia. In many languages watercress means water, as it is grown in water. Other botanically related plants are garden cress (or pepper cress), winter cress, bitter cress, and nasturtium or Indian cress (more of an ornamental plant originating in South America).


The watercress leaflets or clusters of leaves are enjoyed fresh. Dried leaves do not have the flavor as fresh leaves do. With garden cress, the flowers and unripe fruits, too, are eaten. Watercress has a crunchy texture which is appealing for salads. The fresh leaves have a refreshing, sharp, and savory aroma with a peppery, pungent taste.

Chemical Components

Its aroma is due to isothiocyanates which are formed from its precursors, glucosinolates from chopping or chewing. Gluconasturtin in watercress is converted to 2-phenylethyl isothiocyanate (PEITC), a volatile that is sensitive to heat and moisture. It is high in potassium, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, iron, folic acid, and calcium.

Cooking with Watercress

Europeans and North Americans enjoy watercress in sandwiches, in potato salads, in omelets, as cottage cheese spreads, or as garnishes in soup and scrambled eggs. It is pureed and made into watercress soup, a favorite with the English who claimed it to cleanse the blood. The French add it to fines herbes, many white sauces, and flavored vinegars. It adds crunchiness to salads, soups, and sandwiches. Westerners enjoy it fresh while Asians cook it. It is a popular vegetable in Asia, where it is added to stir-fries and soups. As a simple stir-fry, rice wine, sugar, and salt are added. Or it is blanched, chopped, and flavored with sesame oil, garlic, and miso. Spice Blends: herbes fines, watercress soup blend, stir-fry blend, and blend for omelet.

Health Benefits of Watercress

It was believed to be an aphrodisiac and a stimulant by the Arabs, Greeks, English, and many other ancient cultures. Hippocrates used it as a blood purifier and for bronchial disorders, and to increase stamina. The Persian soldiers ate it to prevent and treat scurvy. Made into tea, it was taken to ease aches, pains, and migraines. Watercress is considered a superfood by may nutritionists because of its high levels of antioxidans. An 80 gram serving of watercress sald contains 42 percent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin A and 50 mg of vitamin C. Watercress also contains beta-carotene, B vitamins, vitamin E, folate and calcium. Watercress contains micronutrients that work with antioxidants to combat cancer-friendly free radicals in the body. Several scientific studies have linked watercress intake to lowered rates of cancer risk in smokers and non-smokers alike. In one experiment, test cases who ate watercress daily experienced a significant reduction in DNA damage to white blood cells.

Other names

barbeen (Arabic), jhri godem (Armenian), sai yeung choi (Cantonese), waterkers (Dutch), tazer alaf shesmeh (Farsi), isovesi krasi (Finnish), cresson de fontaine (French), brunnenkresse (German), nerokardamo (Greek), garga hanazir (Hebrew), selada air/ayer (Indonesian, Malaysian), votakuresu (Japanese), vaistino rezuiko (Lithuanian), shui jee cai (Mandarin), bronnkarse (Norwegian), agriao (Portuguese), kress vodianoj (Russian), vodna kresa (Slovenian), berro di agua/crenchas (Spanish), kallfrane (Swedish), lampaka (Tagalog), phakat nam (Thai), su teresi (Turkish), and cai soong

Scientific Name

Watercress: Nasturtium officinale Garden cress: Lepidium sativum Family: Brassicaceae (cabbage family)

Image by 아름 김 from Pixabay