Watercress enjoys a long and storied history, with ancient origins, a variety of uses, and evidence of its use dating back three millennia to the Persians, Greeks, and Romans. It also makes an appearance in iconic historical events, such as the very first Thanksgiving, where it was recorded as a menu item.
Up until the Renaissance, this spunky salad green was used as a breath freshener and palate cleanser, as well as for medicinal purposes. Though our ancient friends knew nothing about mineral content and vitamins, the Persians did observe that soldiers were healthier when watercress was part of their daily diet.
The Greeks were no strangers to the health benefits of watercress, either. When Hippocrates founded the first hospital on the Island of Kos around 400 BC, he grew wild watercress in the natural springs and used it to treat blood disorders.
It is reported that Nicholas Messier first grew watercress in Erfurt, Germany, in the middle of the 16th century. English cultivation started in early 1800 when a farmer near London began popularizing watercress as a salad ingredient. It was not long before it became increasingly difficult to meet the rather sudden increase in demand for watercress.
The herbalist John Gerard celebrated watercress as a remedy for scurvy as early as 1636. And, according to the book James Cook and the Conquest of Scurvy 1, Captain James Cook was able to circumnavigate the globe three times, due in part to his use of watercress in the diet of his sailors.
So, watercress has an illustrious history, but with one common thread: health-wise, it’s always a winner.
- Watercress is believed by many to be an aphrodisiac. In Crete, islanders swear by its powers, and ancient recipes are handed down from generation to generation.
- Lewis and Clark regularly found watercress on their trek across the Louisiana Purchase.
- Eating a bag of watercress is said to be a good cure for a hangover.
- The U.S. Army planted watercress in the gardens of forts along the western trails, as food for their soldiers.
- British vegetarian writer Colin Spencer said the Romans treated insanity with vinegar and watercress.
- Roman emperors ate watercress to help them make “bold decisions.”
- The Persian King Xerxes ordered his soldiers to eat watercress to keep them healthy during their long marches. It was also used by soldiers to both prevent and cure scurvy.
- Watercress is a member of the mustard family and is believed to have originated in Ancient Greece. It remains an integral part of Mediterranean diets.
- One of Britain’s best-known dishes, watercress soup, became very popular in the 17th century when it was claimed that it cleansed the blood.
1 Cuppage, Francis E. James Cook and the conquest of scurvy. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994. Print.