Watercress

(Nasturtium officinale) or (Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum) A cress with exceptionally high Vitamin C content (Mabey. 1972), which explains why it has always been so widely eaten, especially as it is also iron-rich, so that it has long been used particularly for anaemia (Conway). Although it is possible to pick the wild plant, it is best, given that the water it grows in could be polluted, to buy it from the greengrocer. A Somerset legend has it that watercress will only grow near sewerage. Even if it grows well away from human habitation, they will say that there must be an old cesspit nearby (Storer). There is a belief that it should not be gathered for eating when there is no letter 'R' in the name of the month, perhaps because it is in flower during the summer months, or, as water levels are likely to be low in summer, the watercress might be unclean then (Vickery. 1995).

Watercress soup, made with cream, was a traditional Hertfordshire dish (Jones-Baker. 1974). It was even eaten stewed at one time (C P Johnson), which must have destroyed all that it is genuinely good for.

Most of watercress lore has to do with folk medicine, but there are one or two more beliefs connected with it. A Devonshire saying, of some simple person, is that he "never ate his watercress" (Vickery. 1995), giving the idea that the plant was one that gave intelligence (like fish). It seems also to have magical powers of its own, according to Highland witchcraft lore (and always provided that this plant is what is meant by "watercress" (see Watts. 2000)). It was used to steal milk. The witch cut the tops of the plant with a pair of scissors, while a charm was spoken along with the name of the cow's owner, and ending with the words "the half mine, the other half thine". A handful of grass from the thatch over the byre would apparently do just as well. The counter charm was groundsel put with the milk (Polson. 1932). In the language of flowers, it is the symbol of stability and power (Leyel. 1937).

This is a valuable plant, still in use for some medicinal purposes, for some skin diseases (Schauenberg & Paris), even some cancerous growths (Bai'racli-Levy). Just put the juice on the sore place (Page. 1978). Boiled with whisky and sugar, it is an Irish cure for bronchitis (Wood-Martin), and O Súilleabháin mentions its use there for asthma. Watercress tea is drunk for a cold in Trinidad (Laguerre), while it is taken in the Highlands for reducing fevers, and also as a "blood purifier" (Beith). Herbalists still use it for treating rheumatism (Conway), and it is even said in Ireland that, eaten raw, it is good for heart disease (Vickery. 1995).

The Anglo-Saxon version of Apuleius claimed, among a long list of illnesses, "in case that a man's hair fall off, take juice; put it on the nose; the hair shall wax" (Cockayne). Watercress actually is a good hair tonic. There is a saying in French that a bald man "n'a pas de cresson sous le caillou" - loosely, has no watercress on his head (Palaiseul).

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