Watercress is a rapidly growing aquatic or semi aquatic perennial plant native to Europe and Asia. Botanically related to mustard, radish and wasabi, watercress shares their spicy flavor and is one of the oldest known leaf vegetables consumed by humans.
The health benefits of watercress have long been recognized. Around 400BC Hippocrates, the father of medicine, is said to have located his first hospital beside a stream on the island of Kos so that he could grow a plentiful supply of watercress to help treat his patients. Despite being 95% water, watercress is so nutrient rich you can eat it to fend off scurvy. Today watercress has been credited with preventing iron deficiency, some cancers and hangovers, boosting immunity, lowering blood pressure, improving brain health, thyroid function and vision, promoting weight loss and treating diabetes.
Watercress is now available year round, but in earlier times it was only available fresh in the spring. Because it isn’t suitable for distribution in dried form, and can only be stored fresh for a short period, its market was limited. In England, watercress reached its heyday during the Victorian period when the advent of the railroad allowed tons of the plant to be transported to London’s Covent Garden Market.
Eliza James became a prominent figure in the English watercress industry during the late 1800s and early 1900s. As a child of 5 she hawked her family’s watercress to factory workers in Birmingham. By her death in 1927 at the age of 72, she held a near monopoly on the London watercress trade, supplying almost every hotel and restaurant the city. Nicknamed “The Watercress Queen”, the company she founded (James & Son) owned the biggest watercress farms anywhere in the world and handled up to 50 tons of watercress each weekend. Alresford, near Winchester, now styles itself as the watercress capital of England and sponsors an annual Watercress Festival that attracts 15,000 visitors. (By the 1940s, the American town Huntsville, Alabama, called itself “the watercress capital of the world.”)
Use watercress as soon as possible after purchase. It can be stored, chilled, for one or two days the same way you’d store fresh herbs – wrapped in a damp paper towel inside a plastic bag, or placed in a glass of water like a bouquet of flowers and tented with a plastic bag. If it looks a little wilted, shock it in a bowl of ice water.