< Vegetables



Cress—a name given to a range of green salad plants in the nasturtium family of small stature, assertive peppery taste, and light leaf texture. American Cress, Winter Cress, and Water Cress were the most popular of the many sorts of this green. They became popular as salad plants in England in the 1740s and came over to British America as a table amenity among the genteel classes. The cress’s refreshing qualities, however, were apparent to all, and the ease with which certain strains naturalized in eastern America eventually made the plant available to any with sufficient industry to grow them. What had been called early Winter Cress or Scurvy Grass in England had become so at home in American soil, particularly on creek beds, that citizens called it ‘American Cress.’ Because cresses thrive in watery places, they given a species name of Barbarea, alluding to St. Barbara, patron of waterholes.

American Cress is a biennial green, with rather small, and rather densely clustered shiny green alternate leaves growing on stalks that can attain two feet. George William Johnson proposed this protocol for cultivation: “The seed should bo sown thinly in drills one foot apart, and the plants pricked out at the final thinning to eight or ten inches apart, or it may be sown in a drill to form an edging similar to a parsley edging. It is tit for use as soon as the leaf is three inches long, and should be pulled or picked in the same manner as parsley. About midsummer is the best time for sowing it, so that it may become luxuriant and well established by the autumn.” [1] With typical cogency the great American chef Jules Arthur Harder, who presided over the kitchens at Delmonico’s in its heyday, laid out the character and uses of Garden Cress: “This is one of the best plants in cultivation for herbs, and can be easily raised in pots or boxes. It runs quickly into seed and withers as soon as plucked, so for this reason it is rarely found in the markets. It is an excellent ingredient for salads, having a mild, piquant taste. The leaves should never be chopped, but are plucked or served in bunches. The leaves when laid between buttered sandwiches and eaten with eggs, make a relish highly esteemed by epicures.” [2]

Water Cress (nasturtium officinale) is an amphibious perrenial found naturally in ditches and streams. With a rather spreading habit, the plant floats upon the water surface. It was cultivated in streams in beds with rather shallow slopes and containment pools. To keep a crop growing, the white flowers had to be plucked out.

1. George William Johnson, Cottage Gardener and Country Gentleman’s Companion (1849), p. 145.
2. Physiology of Taste (San Francisco: J. A. Harder, 1885), p. 136.

Broad-leaved Cress    History

A coarse variety, with broad, spatulate leaves. It is sometimes grown for feeding poultry, and is also used for soups ; but it is less desirable as a salad than most of the other sorts.

Common or Plain-leaved Cress    History

This is the variety most generally cultivated. It has plain leaves, and consequently is not so desirable a sort for garnishing. As a salad kind, it is tender and delicate, and considered equal, if not superior, to the Curled varieties.

Curled Cress    History

Leaves larger than those of the Common Plain variety, of a fine green color, and frilled and curled on the borders in the manner of some kinds of Parsley. It is used as a salad, and is also employed as a garnish. It is very liable to degenerate by becoming gradually less curled. To keep the variety pure, select only the finest curled plants for seed.

Golden Cress    History

This variety is of slower growth than the Common Cress. The leaves are of a yellowish-green, flat, oblong, scalloped on the borders, sometimes entire, and of a much thinner texture than any of the varieties of the Common Cress. It is very dwarf, and is consequently short when cut as a salad herb for use. It has a mild and delicate flavor. When run to flower, it does not exceed eighteen inches in height. It deserves more general cultivation, as affording a pleasant addition to the varieties of small salads. The seeds are of a paler color, or more yellow, than those of the other sorts.

American Water Cress    History

(Cardamine rotundifolia) a plant indigenous to North America that tastes much resembles the European water cress of the nasturtium family. Can be grown out of water.

Erfurt Sweetest Water Cress    History

a small delicately green variety, more esteemed than the ordinary sort, being less pungent and of a more agreeable flavor.

Winter Cress    History

(Erisymum praecox) early hedge mustard, so called because of its sharp taste, like white mustard. Probably introduced into North America by the French during the colonial era.

American Cress (Gardening for the South 1868)    History

A biennial Cruciferous plant with yellow flowers, the radical leaves of which are lyre-shaped, and the upper ones pinnatified, and cultivated in some gardens as a winter salad. Often called water-cress in the South. It is generally liked as a winter or early spring salad, some like the water-cress but more bitter. P. 221.

Water Cress (Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests)    History

This plant came into pretty high favor about a century ago as a spring salad; and it soon obtained preference to all other spring salads on account of its agreeable, warm, bitter taste, and for the sake of its purifying, anti-scorbutic and diuretic properties. It was greedily gathered in all its natural habitats within some miles of London for the supply of the London market, and eventually became an object of regular, peculiar, and somewhat extensive cultivation. P. 75.

Cress Salad (American Salad Book 1899)    History

Water cresses and the common garden cress, pepper-grass etc., are most wholesome and popular but the abominable habit in most restaurants of garnishing every dish with water cress is, to say the least, tiresome. They may be properly used in moderation to accompany boiled meats and cold roast meats. The young fresh leaves are tender and mild and these only should be used for salad for the older leaves are too strong, tough and bitter. Dress with French dressing which by many is preferred with the oil omitted. Equal parts of sliced celery and cresses are good so are one-third cresses and two-thirds cucumbers using French or mayonnaise dressing. Chopped cresses are an agreeable addition to many green salads such as chicory and lettuce. Cress to be eaten with steak or cold meat is best prepared by washing quickly in cold salted vinegar and water and serving at once. Water cresses and thin sliced crisp apple are delicious made with French dressing and served with water fowl. Have the cress dry and crisp and the salad cold. Maximilian de Loup, The American Salad Book (New York: George R. Knapp, 1899), p. 75.

Cucumber and Cress Salad (Vaughan’s Vegetable Cook Book 1896)    History

Pare two cucumbers and cut them into quarters, lengthwise, then into half-inch pieces. Pick over, wash and drain a pint of fresh cress, and dry in a cloth. Add the cucumbers; mix and turn into the salad-bowl and pour over a French dressing, made by mixing together four tablespoonfuls of olive oil, one-quarter of a teaspoonful of salt, and the same of white pepper, then dropping in, while stirring quickly, one tablespoonful of tarragon or plain vinegar, or lemon juice. Chicago Record. P. 21.

Water Cress Soup (Vaughan’s Vegetable Cook Book 1896)    History

Look over carefully one large bunch of water cress and chop it fine. Melt one large tablespoonful of butter in a granite stew-pan, add the cress and one teaspoonful of lemon juice. Cook about ten minutes, until the cress is tender. Do not let it burn. Add one egg, well beaten, with one heaping teaspoonful of flour, also one saltspoonful of salt and two dashes of pepper. Then pour in three pints of well-flavored soup stock. Let boil five minutes longer and serve with croutons. P. 22.

Cress Vinegar (Cook’s Own Book 1832)     History

Dry and pound half an onnce of cress-seed (such as is sown in the garden with mustard,) pour upon it a quart of the best vinegar, let it steep ten days, shaking it up every day. This is very strongly flavored with cress; and for salads and cold meats, 8te . it is a great favorite with many. p. 241.