Watercress: The Original Leafy Green

Watercress is an aquatic herb that came initially from Eurasia, but you can now find it growing all over North America. It belongs to the Brassicaceae family to which cabbage and mustard also belong.

Watercress is believed to be one of the first leafy vegetables consumed by humans.

The Ancient Egyptians used watercress along with the Ancient Greeks and Romans used. Hippocrates grew the herb and used it as a treatment for blood disorders. In the First century, it was documented by Dioscorides in his Materia Medica. Dioscorides believed watercress to be an aphrodisiac. At the time, watercress was a culinary herb in Asia. Other mentions of it occurred in the 11th century where it showed up in an Anglo-Saxon herbarium. In the 16th century, botanist Leonhart Fuchs brought it to light and it would become a staple medicinal herb throughout Europe. Up until the Renaissance period, Europeans used the watercress mainly to freshen the breath and as a medicine.

In the British Isles, watercress gained a reputation as a remedy for scurvy. This combination of vitamin deficiencies (mostly vitamin C) had long been one of the main obstacles to sailors and historians believe that James Cooke is the first to have overcome it. James Cooke’s voyages were able to take place in large part because watercress had been added to the diets of his sailors. It became popular in his homeland near the start of the 19th century when an English farmer promoted it as a salad green. The demand for it increased rapidly thereafter.

Watercress would become one of the favorite foods of the British working class. The herb would be brought to the US by European immigrants in the mid 19th century.

Watercress flavor profile

Like other members of the Brassicaceae family, watercress has a distinctive peppery flavor along with a mild bitterness.

Health benefits of watercress

Watercress is prized for the health-enhancing compounds it contains. Among those compounds are nutrients like:

  • Vitamins: Watercress is a good source of vitamins A and C. It is an excellent source of vitamin K.
  • Minerals: Like many green vegetables — particularly those in the Brassicaceae family — watercress is rich in both iron and calcium.
  • Isothiocyanates: Isothiocyanates are the chemical compounds responsible for the peppery bite of watercress and of others in the Brassicaceae family, which are also valuable for health.
  • Omega 3 fatty acids: Watercress is considered an excellent vegetable source of omega 3 fatty acids, which can have major benefits for health.

The nutritional content of watercress makes it good as a remedy or preventive tool for health problems like:

  • Inflammatory diseases: The fact that watercress is loaded with antioxidants make it great for treating conditions that involve inflammation, such as arthritis.
  • Cancer: The isothiocyanates in watercress make it valuable for protecting against several common cancers including those that affect the colon and the prostate.
  • Heart disease: Like other members of the Brassicaceae family, watercress has been shown to help with the reduction of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), which is considered the bad type of cholesterol.

Common uses

Typical watercress dishes that you might see in European and North American cuisine include the raw applications like salads and sandwiches. Watercress sandwiches have long been a traditional way to use the herb in the U.K. Watercress soup is another dish popular with the British. Watercress is typically cooked when it shows up in Asian dishes. You might see it among the greens used in a stir-fried dish.

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