Watercress has been cultured and harvested for hundreds of years in many countries around the world. Perhaps due to its familiarity it has been almost ignored as an aquacultural crop – it is seen simply as another species suitable for hydroponic growing – at times simply because an entrepreneur spotted an opportunity – as in this historic watercress farm in Maryland, USA.
Brimming with more than 15 essential vitamins and minerals, its health giving properties has been known since ancient times. Around 400 BC on the Island of Kos, Hippocrates, the father of medicine, is said to have located his first hospital beside a stream so that he could grow a plentiful supply of watercress to help treat his patients, the Greek general Xenophon made his soldiers eat it to increase their vigour before going into battle and Roman emperors said it enabled them to make “bold decisions.”
The annual Alresford Watercress Festival is held in celebration of the health, nutrition, flavour, historic, and economic virtues of watercress. Further exploration of the properties of the watercress includes a research investigation into the potential of watercress as a superfood. It would be just wrong to not mention the pleasures of cooking with watercress as well.
Watercress (Nasturtium microphyllium, Nasturtium officinale) is a species gazetted for land-based aquaculture in New Zealand. The Australian Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) have published indicating that larger scale watercress production has potential as a vibrant new production industry catering to the demand for new flavours and healthy foods in Australia. The full report Potential for Watercress Production in Australia is available online. This from the media release:
Watercress plants are aquatic members of the brassica (cabbage) family, and are botanically related to garden cress and mustard — characterized by a peppery, tangy flavour. The vegetable is associated with a range of health benefits and contains significant amounts of iron, calcium and folic acid, in addition to vitamins A and C.
The plants are relatively easy to row, and production systems can be hydroponic or gravel based. While gravel-based production offers more cost-effective mechanized harvesting and handling, hydroponic systems offer greater water-use efficiency.
The RIRDC-funded research collates information useful to potential investors in watercress production and marketing in Australia, including new opportunities for its introduction into Australian diets, both as a flavoursome salad or in new cooked recipes.
It seems possible that the domestic or backyard aquaculturalist has a potential to explore watercress farming – here’s an indication of how it might be achieved from Herbs from Wales. A similar approach using watercress is described at Growing Power in Wisconsin, USA, and for another perspective of the use of watercress as a water filter plant in the same development. In contrast, the Independent (UK) reports of environmental issues for the Bourne, a small chalk river, renown for its trout fishing, having been polluted by a watercress farm.
In general, detailed information about the practical husbandry of watercress is quite difficult. Courtesy of the wayback engine, it is possible to examine an article from a 1947 edition of the Herts (Hertfordshire, UK) Countryside by W. G. S. Crook, J.P. – Down to the Cress Beds. From the article –
Cultivation requires about one person per acre for the whole operation of planting, bunching, washing and dispatching, together with the incidental work of maintaining the ditches. The men are supplied with thigh-length wading boots. During the winter months the cress is kept down in the water as far as possible by the use of heather brooms or wooden rollers as a protection against frost. At this time the crop makes its quickest growth close upon the outlet from the artesian wells, where the temperature of the water is most conducive to growth; at the far end of the ditch it may be very retarded because of the drop in temperature.