Watercress was one of the few salad vegetables I got to eat as a child; we weren’t really a salad household. If salad was on the menu it was never more than a couple of leaves of limp lettuce, some de-pipped tomato halves and a few thin slices of peeled cucumber. There was another un-cooked vegetable we often ate though: watercress. Strangely this was rarely offered as a part of a salad, instead it was normally presented as the sole ingredient of a sandwich, either stuffed between two slices of cardboard bread or a, sawn in two, crusty and chewy white roll. Watercress was on the menu because it was a local product available from a small scale grower a few miles down the road. Here the waters of a small bourne (stream) running off the hills were diverted to flow through shallow pens in which watercress was planted and cut, crop after crop. After a quick search on the web [read page here] apparently this practice, which began as long ago as 1854, continues, albeit as part of a larger farm shop enterprise. How’s that for local and sustainable!?!
You can, of course, buy watercress. It’s not a standard offering on supermarket shelves but the posher outlets sometimes sell it. You can also try and grow it, but this isn’t as simple as it seems. There are websites with useful advice, but in my experience it’s not easy to get a crop unless watercress has its feet in water. In soil or pots, even if repeatedly soaked, it doesn’t thrive, especially in summer. I’ve never tried growing it aquatically, for example in a garden pond, but my suspicion is that this won’t work either as it is really a plant of flowing water. Watercress does grow wild so it can also be foraged. However, be cautious of picking from watercourses where livestock graze as there’s a risk of the zoonotic nasty, liver fluke.
Given that watercress isn’t always straightforward to buy, grow or forage it surprises me that there’s not greater awareness of a similar plant that makes a passable alternative: land cress, sometimes also known as American cress. Let’s be clear, for me land cress is a passable alternative to watercress. The plants have similarities but aren’t very close relatives. Both are in the cabbage family (Brassicaceae) but watercress is Nasturtium officinale (e.g. of the nasturtium branch) while land cress, scientific name Barbarea verna, is of the Barbarea genus.
When it comes to eating qualities it has to be said that land cress doesn’t quite match watercress for flavour and overall quality. It’s perhaps best characterised, in both texture and taste, as more ‘rugged’. An analogy might be made, for those that know both, with the difference between spinach, that’s true spinach, and spinach beet or perpetual spinach. Watercress and spinach are more subtle in flavour and less tough and stalky in texture, than their alternative counterparts.
While land cress may be a little less ‘refined’ than watercress it still makes a very useful substitute, especially from the point of view of cultivation. Most importantly, as the name suggests, it will grow on land without needing to sit in water. It mustn’t be allowed to dry out, especially at seedling stage, but otherwise any soil that’s not too droughty will do. The other main advantage of land cress is its hardiness and ability to tolerate cold weather. It will survive outside in all but the most severe winters. Indeed, it prefers cool conditions and is best treated as a winter crop. If sown in spring or summer it generally bolts (produces a seed head) quite quickly so that the quality and quantity of leaves for picking is reduced. When sown later in the summer however, land cress will produce edible leaves in eight to ten weeks and continue to do so for months. Although growth may stop temporarily in the depths of winter when light levels and temperatures are low, there’s usually a flush of new leaves from late January. It’s then not until early April that seed heads will be thrown up at which point production of new leaves tails off. The crop is then best removed unless you want to try saving the seed or letting it reseed naturally, which it’ll do enthusiastically.
Detailed information on growing land cress is generally fairly cursory on the Web and not always relevant to UK conditions. To my astonishment, perhaps the most down to earth advice I found was in the Morning Star newspaper; who knew the UK’s only avowedly socialist daily had an occasional gardening column? As not all WWOOFy types will be regular readers I’ll elaborate slightly on the advice it offers. Like the columnist I only start land cress from mid-summer sowing in two batches, one in mid-July and another in early August. My favoured method is to grow the plants in modules (cellular seed containers), setting four to five seeds in a cluster at the centre of each cell. An alternative sometimes used is to sow direct into soil, but this can be tricky if it’s dry as germination can be difficult. Once the seedlings are well established I plant out, spacing the clustered plants about 20 centimetres apart. Some netting protection is advised, as the young plants are vulnerable both to caterpillars (it’s a brassica after all) and, more destructively, wood pigeons. Otherwise there’s not much to do other than perhaps a quick weed before the plants spread to smother out any competition. From then on it’s all about the picking which is best done by taking the larger leaves while preserving those in the centre which will slowly grow as the weather cools to provide harvests into spring.
Much of the land cress I grow finds its way into the mixed salad bags sold from October to early May. Generally, we don’t eat or sell it by itself. The best option is to mix it with other leaves to give a hotter contrast to the cooler, some might say blander, salad ingredients like mizuna or corn salad. And, land cress need not be just for salad. It makes a tasty soup, either alone or with other veg (like this recipe by Riverford Farm for a land cress/potato soup). Cooking is another possibility. Treat it like spinach, perhaps sauté or stir fry. Or use it as an ingredient in quiches or tarts.
That’s the great thing about land cress – it’s versatile. Easy to grow, a valuable winter salad and with wider culinary uses it deserves to be more widely known and grown even if it doesn’t quite have the eating qualities of its watery cousin.
We hope you enjoyed reading about Mr Fluttergrub’s Water(less) Cress. Maybe you have experience of growing watercress or land cress yourself? If so, we’d love to hear about it so we can share your knowledge on the WWOOF UK grapevine. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org