Common Name: Watercress, Water Radish, Water Rocket, Hedge Mustard

Scientific Name: Nasturtium officinale
Family: Brassicaceae (the Crucifers or Cabbage/Broccoli/Turnip/Radish family)

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Watercress growing wild in Wisconsin.

Description:
Watercress is a prime example of why there should be extra layers in the Edible Forest Garden (see my article on the Nine Layers of the Food Forest). This amazing plant does best when grown in an aquatic or wetland location. Grow it in clear, flowing water, and you have an amazing raw or cooked green with a pungent flavor. Grow it in poorer conditions, and it will purify the water and accumulate nutrients… a great addition to the compost pile. This is a highly recommended plant.

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Nasturtium officinale

History:
Native to Asia and Europe, Watercress has been consumed for thousands of years. In fact, it is likely the oldest known green veg used by humans. It can be traced back to the Persians, Romans, and Greeks. Hippocrates himself grew watercress at the first hospital on the island of Kos around 400 BC. Watercress remained a commonly collected wild food throughout Europe. It was also common through Asia, but the history of Watercress in Asia is less known. It spread around the world with the European explorers who used it to prevent scurvy (a deadly vitamin C deficiency prevented due to Watercress’ high vitamin content). Watercress was raised commercially in the early 1800’s, and it’s popularity grew. Over the last few decades, watercress has waxed and waned in popularity.

Trivia:

  • The stems of Watercress are hollow which allows the plant to float.
  • The seeds of Watercress can be used to make a mustard. The seeds are dried and then ground to a powder. If exposed to cold water and allowed to sit for 10-15 minutes, the mustard will become “hot” or “spicy”. The cold water activates an enzyme, myrosinase, which breaks down another compound, sinigrin, to produce a mustard oil, allyl isothiocyanate. This mustard oil is what give the pungent, mustardy flavor. This is the same mustard oil responsible for the pungent flavor in horseradish. Once activated and pungent, it needs to be used right away or mixed with vinegar, or it will lose its pungency and become bitter. Interestingly, if the dried Watercress seed powder is mixed with hot water or vinegar first, the enzyme is not activated, and the mixture will not become pungent and will be bitter.
  • Despite its Latin name, watercress is not related to the popular trailing flower, nasturtium (which has edible leaves and flowers).
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Watercress Salad

Watercress Salad with Miso-Lime Dressing (Recipe)

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The classic French Watercress and Potato soup (Potage Cressionniere)

Jamie Oliver’s recipe
Caroline’s Kitchen Diary recipe
Delia Online recipe

USING THIS PLANT

Primary Uses:

  • Edible Leaves – Leaves can be used raw or cooked throughout the growing season. Typically used in small amounts (like a garnish) in salads, but can be. Commonly used to make a soup.
  • Edible Seeds – dried and ground into a powder – used like mustard. See Trivia above..
  • Edible Sprouts – has a spicy flavor.

Secondary Uses:

  • General insect (especially bees) pollen plant
  • Dynamic Accumulator Species – Potassium, Phosphorus, Calcium, Sulfur, Iron, Magnesium, Sodium
  • Water Purifying Plant

Yield: High as far as greens are concerned. Harvesting can start at 30-45 days and may continue every 40-80 days.
Harvesting: Leaves can be harvest at anytime during the growing season. The flavor is better before flowering – leaves can become bitter. Seeds can be harvested when from mid-Summer through Autumn.
Storage: Use within a few days fresh. There are some reports of dehydrating Watercress, but I have never tried it or tasted it.

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Watercress can easily be added to any pond or stream.

DESIGNING WITH THIS PLANT

USDA Hardiness Zone: 2-10
AHS Heat Zone: 8-1
Chill Requirement: None

Plant Type: Small Aquatic/Semi-Aquatic Herbaceous Perennial
Leaf Type: Deciduous (will overwinter in mild areas)
Forest Garden Use: Wetland/Aquatic Layer, Herbaceous Layer
Cultivars/Varieties: There are few cultivars available

Pollination: Self-fertile
Flowering: Late Spring to Autumn (May-October). Pollinated by bees and flies.

Life Span: No good information available as we typically harvest the plant and eat it. Considering that the plants can spread so easily, an individual’s life span is likely irrelevant.

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Watercress can spread easily, but we can harvest often!

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Watercress flowers are tiny.

PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS OF THIS PLANT

Size: 6-12 inches (15-30 cm) tall and indefinitely wide
Roots: Fibrous with runners
Growth Rate: Medium-Fast (fast if in aquatic conditions)

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Watercress is known for attracting wildlife.

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A great addition to the Aquatic/Wetland Layer!

GROWING CONDITIONS FOR THIS PLANT

Light: Prefers full sun
Shade: Tolerates light shade
Moisture: Prefers shallow aquatic or semi-aquatic conditions; will also grow in wet/muddy soils; will tolerate moist soils if the soil does not dry out.
pH: 6.5-8.0 (prefers fairly neutral to alkaline conditions)

Special Considerations for Growing:
Slow moving, very clean water is the best condition for growing this plant.

Propagation:
Typically from seed – no stratification required. Grows easily from cuttings – any part of the plant (leaves, stems, etc.) will sprout roots. Divisions of the runners from the mother plant.

Maintenance:
Minimal.

Concerns:

  • Dispersive – in some locations, Watercress is considered an invasive weed. In other locations, it is considered a high-value aquatic crop and water purifying plant… perspective is everything! If you are in an area where Watercress is a “weed”, you have a great compostable material. It is relatively easy to harvest, and it accumulates a lot of minerals; this is a great addition to the compost bin!
  • Watercress contains compounds which slow the enzymes cytochrome P450 in humans. This enzyme family is responsible for metabolizing many modern medications. If you are going to be consuming Watercress in more than small amounts, and you are taking regular medication, then check with your doctor.
  • It has been reported that eating large amounts of raw food from the Brassica family can cause GI upset… I think it has to be quite a bit, though. No definitive numbers. My advice is to start low and go slow, increasing as tolerated.
  • If you are raising livestock on your land, be sure that the water used to grow your Watercress is not filtering through your pastures. The common liver fluke (Fasciola genus of parasitic flat worms) are commonly found in the liver and bile ducts of sheep, cattle, and other animals. The eggs are passed in the animals’ stool and mature in certain species of freshwater snails. These matured larvae reside on freshwater plants (they are fond of Watercress) and wait to be eaten, by wild animals, livestock, or humans, and mature into adult flukes. This awful sounding infection can easily be avoided by using only clean water to raise your Watercress.

 

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Photo References:

  • http://ericademane.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/watercress-painting.jpg
  • http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-KFxHwwTV7qQ/TeHelggS0-I/AAAAAAAABWY/gWeF0W3Msj8/s1600/watercress-1.jpg
  • http://i801.photobucket.com/albums/yy294/StreamOfTime_photos/WaterCress_zpsa4617cf0.jpg
  • http://3brothersflies.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/watercress-and-release-3000×2250.jpg
  • http://www.herbs.org.nz/information/images/watercress.jpg
  • http://www.gallowaywildfoods.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/watercress-closeup-may.jpg
  • http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_1C72BiCMjz4/TU7PQhgv-6I/AAAAAAAABI0/dR_fFbU2Df8/s1600/wild+watercress+spring+water.jpg
  • http://farm7.staticflickr.com/6034/6243115793_c8fb273fd9_o.jpg
  • http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_HOGY48tq_uY/TQaK1gS_oWI/AAAAAAAACuc/OQotp-HAXBo/s1600/Watercress+Salad+1.jpg