Watercress has small, crisp, dark green leaves and a pungent, slightly bitter, peppery flavor. It’s a member of the Cruciferae (mustard) family, which includes broccoli, kale, and mustard greens. Watercress grows wild in streambeds and in the wet soil along pond margins. For the commercial market, however, watercress seedlings are started in dry soil, then placed in special pools of flowing clean, cool water.
Like many members of the mustard family, the nourishing leafy sprigs of watercress have long been touted for their medicinal properties. Over the centuries the plant has been used as a diuretic, expectorant, purgative, stimulant, and antiscorbutic to prevent scurvy, among other uses. Hippocrates, the renowned Greek father of medicine, purportedly selected the location for his first hospital because of its proximity to a stream where watercress grew.
It wasn’t until the mid-1800s, however, that European immigrants introduced watercress to the United States. Today Florida is the major commercial supplier to the US market.
Watercress is considered by many in the culinary world to be a highly underrated and underused vegetable. Not only can it add zest to salads, sandwiches, soups, and sauces, but like other cruciferous vegetables, it has nutritional value as well.
Watercress provides generous amounts of the carotenoid beta carotene. Our bodies convert substantial amounts of beta carotene to vitamin A in a safe, carefully regulated process that prevents toxic levels of vitamin A from accumulating.
Watercress also offers fiber, potassium, and, most notably, vitamin C. Just 2 cups of raw, chopped watercress supplies an impressive one-third of the daily requirement for this indispensable vitamin.Watercress and its cruciferous cousins are known to be excellent sources of a family of cancer-fighting phytochemicals called isothiocyanates.
Vitamin K interactions
Watercress also contains Vitamin K. People who take blood-thinners such as warfarin (Coumadin) are sometimes told to avoid foods high in vitamin K, including chard, collards, kale, mustard greens, and spinach. In fact, they don’t need to shun these vegetables. It’s more important to keep a consistent diet, and eat these vegetables moderately. Newer anticoagulants such as dabigatran (Pradaxa), rivaroxaban (Xarelto), and apixaban (Eliquis) are not affected by vitamin K.
For a full list of nutrients, see Watercress in the National Nutrient Database.
Types of watercress
While watercress (Nasturtium officinale) can easily be found in most markets, there are two other less well-known watercress relatives that are also occasionally available, usually in specialty food stores or farmers’ markets.
- Garden cress (curly cress, pepper cress): Like watercress, garden cress (Lepidium sativum) has a pungent, peppery flavor and can be used in lieu of traditional watercress in recipes. Some types have curly leaves. A similar species, wild peppergrass (L. virginicum) is not cultivated, but can be picked for salads.
- Upland cress (winter cress, broadleaf cress, creasy greens): Resembling watercress in both form and flavor, upland cress (Barbarea verna) produces very small, almost square, green leaves that have a slight notching on the leaf margins. The stems can grow 6 to 8 inches long.
How to buy the best watercress
Choose watercress with bright green, unwilted leaves and crisp, moist stems. There should be no sign of yellowing or wilting.
If you’re picking your own, beware that the poisonous marshwort or “fool’s cress” (Apium nodiflorum) is often mistaken for watercress, and sometimes grows alongside watercress. Fool’s cress may rbe distinguished by its hemlock-like white flowers, and when out of flower, by its finely toothed and somewhat pointed leaves, which are much longer than those of watercress and of a paler green color.
How to store watercress at home
You can place a bunch of watercress, stems down, in a container of water like a bouquet of flowers. Cover it loosely with a plastic bag and refrigerate; it will keep for two or three days. Don’t put watercress in the vegetable crisper, where it’s likely to get bruised and crushed.
How to prepare watercress
Wash watercress just before using. Trim the bottom inch or so off the stems, then cut the band or string that holds the bunch and drop the watercress into a basin of water. Swish the watercress in the water, and then lift it out, leaving any dirt behind in the basin. Repeat the process if necessary.
7 watercress recipe ideas
- Sprinkle chopped watercress over scrambled eggs.
- Make a salad dressing by blending watercress with lemon juice, salt, pepper, and some olive oil.
- Make a hearty watercress-potato soup. Serve hot in winter, and chilled in the warm days of summer.
- Toss watercress with chunks of roasted beet and herbed goat cheese for a filling watercress salad.
- Stir chopped watercress into a potato salad.
- Blend chopped watercress with Neufchâtel or yogurt cheese for a sandwich spread.
- Quickly steam or stir-fry watercress as you would spinach and eat it as a side dish.