Those that know me will get just how excited I was to come across this wild feast, right around the corner from my house too! A beautifully lush patch of watercress (Naturtium officinale) growing in a manmade drainage ditch alongside a quiet country lane, right in front of a house. It’s amazing just how deep an insight into any plant you can gain from seeing it growing ‘wild’.
I use the ‘brackets’ because whilst it is totally possible that this has grown wild – perhaps sprung up from some stray watercress seeds or a discarded shop bought bunch with some rootlets still intact – it seems far more likely that some enterprising and knowledgable local has planted this deliberately. Circumstance has provided the perfect habitat for the watercress to spread prolifically, a long sloping ditch, catching the sun for most of the day, that runs continually with fresh water every autumn/winter/early spring without fail. It’s usually very wet in the winter season around this part of East Sussex as the water table is pretty high meaning drainage ditches line almost every road. Our lime rich soil also provides the perfect alkaline environment for it to thrive in.
It is a member of the cabbage family and has small white flowers between May and October. It grows up to around 10 inches tall with its roots in the mud and the upper portion standing or floating in/on the water, depending on how fast the water flows. It will sometimes grow in merely damp soil too but may suffer in the taste and succulence department.
Watercress is a nutritionally loaded plant, exceptionally rich in vitamins A, C, E, B1, B2 beta carotene, calcium, iodine and iron. Its high vitamin C content led to it being eaten in the past to treat and prevent scurvy and watercress has gained a reputation as a bit of a superfood in recent years. Medicinally it can be helpful against lung complaints like asthma and bronchitis, urinary tract infections and helps eliminate excess fluids, protects the heart and helps keep blood vessels flexible and healthy, helps protect the eyes and vision, aids the digestive process, can help arthritis , gout and rheumatism, encourages strong healthy bones and its even shown great promise as a cancer preventative too, particularly breast cancer. Historically it has been eaten by mature women to restore vigour, heralded as an aphrodisiac, eaten to improve metal alertness and rubbed on the head to prevent hair loss.
I am definitely going to try to follow suit, this has inspired me to do some guerilla gardening! Only considerations being that it must run with fresh water for at least part of the year (it’s not too keen on standing water) and ideally not be draining any fields or land where cattle or sheep graze or where chemicals/pesticides are used. Along side busy roads would also be a no-no as particles from exhaust fumes, spillage etc will be present. Watercress is a host plant for a very common parasitic liver fluke (passed from the faeces of cattle and sheep) which can also infect humans if contaminated watercress is eaten raw. If you can’t be certain that the water it grows in is free from cattle or sheep drainage, it’s still ok to pick but you will need to steam it, boil it or make it into soup etc.
Because watercress is up to 90% water, it make sense that the water it lives in be as clean and unpolluted as possible if you are considering eating it, raw or cooked and always wash it thoroughly before eating it, whether you eat it raw or cooked.
Be extremely careful that you don’t confuse it with other water loving plants that may be poisonous and if in any doubt, leave it!
Here are a few links to recipes for wild (or tame) watercress…..
http://vegetarian-recipes.wonderhowto.com/how-to/find-and-eat-wild-watercress-without-being-poisoned-423162/ for a recipe for creamed watercress.
http://www.motherearthnews.com/real-food/foraging-for-wild-watercress-zmaz82ndzgoe.aspx?PageId=2#ArticleContent for a recipe for watercress soup.
Or some tips and cheats on how to grow it at home…..