It is not known where either garden cress or watercress originated.
The French term cresson alénois (garden cress) probably came from Orleans, where it has been cultivated since the Middle Ages in this region well watered by the Loire River. Watercress, in turn, is found wild everywhere in Europe, Central Asia, the United States, and Canada.
Watercress was known and appreciated in ancient times both for its flavor and medicinal qualities. The Greeks believed it could "return reason to deranged spirits", also eating it after having drunk too much alcohol. The Romans mainly used it as a cure against baldness.
Although it grew in any place where the ground was damp and favorable – along streams and rivers – it only began to be cultivated in the 18th century in Germany, France, and England, where it continues to be grown. Watercress is also grown in other countries, particularly in the United States and Canada. Because of the chemicals used, wherever it is grown, it contributes to polluting the planet.
Whatever the variety, watercress leaves should be very green, without yellowing or wilting, and their stalks should be firm.
As watercress provides a home for a dangerous parasite, the liver fluke (the cause of hepatobiliary disease when it infects the liver), the growing of it is strictly monitored. Bunches have mandatory tracing through a link to grower's location and authorization number. This is also mandatory for watercress sold in bags.
Fresh, watercress normally comes in bunches in wood or cardboard boxes on crushed ice to preserve it. It is also packed in bags under controlled atmosphere or in trays covered in plastic wrap.
It is also available frozen or dried.
Cress seeds are also sold.
Watercress must be carefully washed, and the water changed several times, before use.
It can be made into soup, coulis, combined with potatoes to make a green puree, mixed with other herbs in a salad, or used in pesto or a sauce, where it adds color and enhances flavor.
Watercress can be kept in the refrigerator or cool room at 4ºC for up to 48 hours, with bunches wrapped in a damp cloth.
Watercress's extraordinarily high content of minerals, antioxidants, and vitamins make it a natural health food.
On the one hand, it is a natural tonic because of its combination of iron and folic acid, both of which are necessary for making red blood cells, and the presence of vitamin C, which enhances the absorption of iron. On the other hand, it contains all kinds of antioxidant molecules, carotenoids, and flavonoids, that have a protective effect on the organism.
This depends on whether it is eaten regularly and in sufficient amounts. The tiny bunch of cress decorating a dish will not have this effect.
Wild watercress should never be eaten owing to the risk of liver fluke.
. Garden watercress
The small, round, and slightly elongated light green leaves of this plant are and highly segmented. Its flavor is a little bitter and quite tangy. It is grown throughout the year, but it is at its best in March and in September.
The most common variety is grown in watercress beds, shallow basins filled with flowing water. Its small leaves are wide and oval, and an intense green. Its flavor is also intense, but less bitter than that of garden cress. It is grown throughout the year, but the best season is April through October.
. Land cress
This plant has dark green, rounded, and shiny leaves. It has a very marked peppery taste. July through March.
. Cuckooflower or Lady's smock
The leaves of this plant are smaller and gray-green or dark green in color. It grows wild in many places, but is also cultivated. It has a tangy flavor. All year.
. Toothache plant or paracress
This plant is common in Madagascar and throughout the countries bordering the Indian Ocean. It has been acclimatized in France. Its elongated leaves are light green. It has a tangy, peppery flavor. September through December.