Cress (Lepidium sativum) , sometimes referred to as garden cress to distinguish it from similar plants also referred to as cress.
The Cress of the herbalist is a noun of multitude: it comprises several sorts, differing in kind but possessing the common properties of wholesomeness and pungency. The name is thought by some to be derived from the Latin verb crescere, to grow fast. Each kind of Cress belongs to the Cruciferous genus of plants.
Plants cultivated for their edible leaves:
As Curative Herbal Simples we need only consider the Garden or Town Cress, and the Water Cress: whilst regarding the other varieties rather as condiments, and salad herbs to be taken by way of pleasant wholesome appetizers at a table.These aromatic herbs were employed to season the homely dishes of our forefathers, before commerce had brought the spices of the East at a cheap rate to our doors; and Cresses were held in common favour by peasants for such a purpose. The black, or white pepper of to-day, was then so costly that “to promise a saint yearly a pound of it was considered a liberal bequest.” And therefore the leaves of wild Cresses were eaten as a substitute for giving pungency to the food. Remarkable among these was the Dittander Sativus, a species found chiefly near the sea, with foliage so hot and acrid, that the plant then went by the name of “Poor-man’s Pepper,” or “Pepper Wort.” Pliny said, “It is of the number of scorching and blistering Simples.” “This herbe,” says Lyte, “is fondly and unlearnedly called in English Dittany. It were better in following the Dutchmen to name it Pepperwort.”
The Garden Cress, called Sativum (from satum, a pasture), is the sort commonly coupled with the herb Mustard in our familiar “Mustard and Cress.” It has been grown in England since the middle of the sixteenth century, and its other name Town Cress refers to its cultivation in “tounes,” or enclosures. This annual plant can reach a height of 60 cm (24 inches), with many branches on the upper part. When mature, garden cress produces white or light-pink flowers, and small seed pods. It has long leaves at the bottom of the stem and small, bright-green, feather-like leaves arranged on opposite sides of its stalks at the top. The white to pinkish flowers are only 2 mm (1/12 of an inch) across, clustered in branched racemes.
Cultivation of garden cress is practical on both mass scales and on the individual scale. Garden cress is suitable for
hydroponic cultivation and thrives in slightly alkaline water. In many local markets, the demand for hydroponically grown
cress can exceed available supply, partially because cress leaves are not suitable for distribution in dried form, so can be
only partially preserved. Consumers commonly acquire cress as seeds or (in Europe) from markets as boxes of young live
Seed – if you want a succession of young leaves then it is possible to sow the seed in situ every 3 weeks in succession from
early spring to early autumn. Germination is very rapid, usually taking place in less than a week. When sowing seed for use
in mustard and cress, the seed is soaked for about 12 hours in warm water and then placed in a humid position. Traditionally,
it is sown in a tray on a thin layer of soil, or on some moist blotting paper, and the tray is placed in a warm dark place for a
few days to encourage rapid and rather etiolated growth. The seedlings can then be placed in a lighter position for a couple
more days to turn green before being eaten. The cress seed should be sown about 3 – 4 days before the mustard for them
both to be ready at the same time.
The several varieties of Cress are stimulating and anti-scorbutic. The whole tribe is termed lepidium, or “siliquose,” scaly, with reference to the shape of the seed-pouches. It includes “Land Cress (formerly dedicated to St. Barbara); Broad-leaved Cress (or the Poor-man’s pepper); Penny Cress (thlapsus); Garden, or Town Cress; and the well known edible Water Cress.” Formerly the Greeks attached much value to the whole order of Cresses, which they thought very beneficial to the brain. A favourite maxim with them was, “Eat Cresses, and get wit.”
The aroma of cress is a range from a strong pungent peppery smell to an almost gentle light peppery smell, so thus differs in strengths. When bruised its leaves affect the eyes and nose almost like mustard.
A peppery and tangy flavour much like mustard in a way too, the pepper shines through hence the names given for the different varieties of Cress. A very acrid flavour with a sharp biting qualities is prominent in all varieties.
Health Benefits of Cress
It contains sulphur, and a special ardent volatile medicinal oil. The small leaves combined with those of our white garden Mustard are excellent against rheumatism and gout. Likewise it is a preventive of scurvy by reason of its mineral salts. The leaves are antiscorbutic, diuretic and stimulant. The plant is administered in cases of asthma, cough with expectoration and bleeding piles. The root is used in the treatment of secondary syphilis and tenesmus. The seeds are galactogogue. They have been boiled with milk and used to procure an abortion, they have been applied as a poultice to hurts and pains and have also been used as an aperient. Seeds are used medicinally for indigestion and constipation.
Garden cress contains significant amounts of iron, calcium, folic acid and vitamins A and C. It is also a source of phytochemicals and antioxidants.
· Garden cress is an important source of iron, folic acid, calcium, vitamins C, E and A. Because of its high iron and protein content, it is often given post-partum to lactating mothers .
· The seed contains arachidic and linoleic fatty acids.
· The seeds are high in calories and protein, whereas the leaves are an excellent source of vitamin A, C and folate
· Garden cress seeds are good expectorants and when chewed they treat sore throat, cough, asthma and headache.
Buying and storing
It is best used as soon as it is bought as it spoils easily, wonderful when fresh.
When buying cress, look for firm, evenly coloured, rich green leaves. Avoid cress with any signs of slime, wilting, or discolouration. Young leaves – raw or cooked. A hot cress-like flavour, it makes an excellent addition (in small quantities) to the salad bowl. The root is used as a condiment. A hot pungent flavour, but the root is rather small and woody. The fresh or dried seed pods can be used as a pungent seasoning. The seed can be sprouted in relatively low light until the shoots are a few centimetres long and then be used in salads. They take about 7 days to be ready and have a pleasantly hot flavour. An edible oil is obtained from the seed.
Cress can be stored in the refrigerator in plastic for up to five days.
To prolong the life of cress, place the stems in a glass container with water and cover them, refrigerating the cress until it is needed.
Ideas with cooking with Cress
Garden Cress is eaten alone on fresh bread with butter, or with lettuce; in salads, part of the greens. Land cress is considered a satisfactory substitute for watercress. It can be used in sandwiches, or salads, or cooked like spinach, or used in soup. It is also eaten as sprouts, and the fresh or dried seed pods can be used as a peppery seasoning. Cut cress shoots are commonly used in sandwiches with boiled eggs, mayonnaise and salt.