The Cress of the herbalist is a noun of multitude: it comprises
several sorts, differing in kind but possessing the common
properties of wholesomeness and pungency. Here order in variety
we see; and here, though all things differ, all agree. The name
is thought by some to be derived from the Latin verb crescere,
to grow fast.
Each kind of Cress belongs to the Cruciferous genus of plants;
e comes, perhaps, the common name The several varieties
of Cress are stimulating and anti-scorbutic, whilst each contains a
particular essential principle, of acrid flavour, and of sharp biting
qualities. The whole tribe is termed lepidium, or siliquose,
scaly, with reference to the shape of the seed-pouches. It includes
Land Cress (formerly dedicated to St. Barbara); Broad-leaved
Cress (or the Poor-man's pepper); Penny Cress (thlapsus);
Garden, or Town Cress; and the well known edible Water Cress.
Formerly the Greeks attached much value to the whole order of
Cresses, which they thought very beneficial to the brain. A
favourite maxim with them was, Eat Cresses, and get wit.
In England these plants have long been cultivated as a source of
profit; whence arose the saying that a graceless fellow is not worth
a kurse or cress--in German, kers. Thus Chaucer speaks about
a character in the Canterbury Tales, Of paramours ne fraught
he not a kers. But some writers have referred this saying rather to
the wild cherry or kerse, making it of the same significance as our
common phrase, Not worth a fig.
As Curative Herbal Simples we need only consider the Garden or
Town Cress, and the Water Cress: whilst regarding the other
varieties rather as condiments, and  salad herbs to be taken
by way of pleasant wholesome appetisers at table. These
aromatic herbs were employed to season the homely dishes of our
forefathers, before commerce had brought the spices of the East at
a cheap rate to our doors; and Cresses were held in common
favour by peasants for such a purpose. The black, or white pepper
of to-day, was then so costly that to promise a saint yearly a
pound of it was considered a liberal bequest. And therefore the
leaves of wild Cresses were eaten as a substitute for giving
pungency to the food. Remarkable among these was the Dittander
Sativus, a species found chiefly near the sea, with foliage
so hot and acrid, that the plant then went by the name of
Poor-man's Pepper, or Pepper Wort. Pliny said, It is of the
number of scorching and blistering Simples. This herbe, says
Lyte, is fondly and unlearnedly called in English Dittany. It were
better in following the Dutchmen to name it Pepperwort.
The Garden Cress, called Sativum (from satum, a pasture),
is the sort commonly coupled with the herb Mustard in our
familiar Mustard and Cress. It has been grown in England since
the middle of the sixteenth century, and its other name Town
Cress refers to its cultivation in tounes, or enclosures. It was
also known as Passerage; from passer, to drive away--rage, or
madness, because of its reputed power to expel hydrophobia. This
Garden Cress, said Wm. Coles in his Paradise of Plants, 1650,
being green, and therefore more qualified by reason of its
humidity, is eaten by country people, either alone with butter, or
with lettice and purslane, in Sallets, or otherwise.
It contains sulphur, and a special ardent volatile medicinal oil. The
small leaves combined with those of  our white garden
Mustard are excellent against rheumatism and gout. Likewise it is
a preventive of scurvy by reason of its mineral salts. In which
salutary respects the twin plants, Mustard and Cress, are happily
consorted, and well play a capital common part, like the two
single gentlemen rolled into one of George Colman, the younger.
The Water Cress (Nasturtium officinale) is among cresses, to
use an American simile, the finest toad in the puddle. This is
because of its superlative medicinal worth, and its great popularity
at table. Early writers called the herb Shamrock, and common
folk now-a-days term it the Stertion. Zenophon advised the
Persians to feed their children on Water-cresses (kardamon
esthie) that they might grow in stature and have active minds.
The Latin name Nasturtium was given to the Watercress because
of its volatile pungency when bruised and smelt; from nasus,
a nose, and tortus, turned away, it being so to say, a herb
that wriths or twists the nose. For the same reason it is called
Nasitord in France. When bruised its leaves affect the eyes and
nose almost like mustard. They have been usefully applied to the
scald head and tetters of children. In New Zealand the stems grow
as thick as a man's wrist, and nearly choke some of the rivers. Like
an oyster, the Water-cress is in proper season only when there is
an r in the month.
According to an analysis made recently in the School of Pharmacy
at Paris, the Water-cress contains a sulpho-nitrogenous oil, iodine,
iron, phosphates, potash, certain other earthy salts, a bitter extract,
and water. Its volatile oil which is rich in nitrogen and sulphur
(problematical) is the sulpho-cyanide of allyl. Anyhow  there
is much sulphur possessed by the whole plant in one form or
another, together with a considerable quantity of mineral matter.
Thus the popular plant is so constituted as to be particularly
curative of scrofulous affections, especially in the spring time,
when the bodily humours are on the ferment. Dr. King Chambers
writes (Diet in Health and Disease), I feel sure that the
infertility, pallor, fetid breath, and bad teeth which characterise
some of our town populations are to a great extent due to their
inability to get fresh anti-scorbutic vegetables as articles of diet:
therefore I regard the Water-cress seller as one of the saviours of
her country. Culpeper said pithily long ago: They that will live
in health may eat Water-cress if they please; and if they won't, I
cannot help it.
The scrofula to which the Water-cress and its allied plants are
antidotal, got its name from scrofa, a burrowing pig,
signifying the radical destruction of important glands in the body
by this undermining constitutional disease. Possibly the quaint
lines which nurses have long been given to repeat for the
amusement of babies while fondling their infantine fingers bear a
hidden meaning which pointedly imports the scrofulous taint. This
nursery distich, as we remember, personates the fingers one by one
as five little fabulous pigs:--the first small piggy doesn't feel well;
and the second one threatens the doctor to tell; the third little pig
has to linger at home; and the fourth small porker of meat has
none; then the fifth little pig, with a querulous note, cries weak,
weak, weak from its poor little throat.
oegrotat multis doloribus porculus ille:
Ille rogat fratri medicum proferre salutem:
Debilis ille domi mansit vetitus abire;
Carnem digessit nunquam miser porculus ille;
'Eheu!' ter repetens, 'eheu!' perporculus, 'eheu!'
Vires exiguas luget plorante susurro.
 On account of its medicinal constituents the herb has
been deservedly extolled as a specific remedy for tubercular
consumption of the lungs. Haller says: We have seen patients in
deep declines cured by living almost entirely on this plant; and it
forms the chief ingredient of the Sirop Antiscorbutique given so
successfully by the French faculty in scrofula and other allied
diseases. Its active principles are at their best when the plant is in
flower; and the amount of essential oil increases according to the
quantity of sunlight which the leaves obtain, the proportion of iron
being determined according to the quality of the water, and the
measure of phosphates by the supply of dressing afforded. The
leaves remain green when grown in the shade, but become of a
purple brown because of their iron when exposed to the sun. The
expressed juice, which contains the peculiar taste and pungency of
the herb, may be taken in doses of from one to two fluid ounces at
each of the three principal meals, and it should always be had
fresh. When combined with the juice of Scurvy grass and of
Seville oranges it makes the popular antiscorbutic medicine known
as Spring juices.
A Water-cress cataplasm applied cold in a single layer, and with a
pinch of salt sprinkled thereupon makes a most useful poultice to
heal foul scrofulous ulcers; and will also help to resolve glandular
Water-cresses squeezed and laid against warts were said by the
Saxon leeches to work a certain cure on these excrescences. In
France the Water-cress is dipped in oil and vinegar to be eaten at
table with chicken or a steak. The Englishman takes it at his
morning or evening meal, with bread and butter, or at dinner in a
salad. It loses some of its pungent flavour and of its curative
qualities  when cultivated; and therefore it is more appetising
and useful when freshly gathered from natural streams. But these
streams ought to be free from contamination by sewage matter, or
any drainage which might convey the germs of fever, or other
blood poison: for, as we are admonished, the Water-cress plant
acts as a brush in impure running brooks to detain around its stalks
and leaves any dirty disease-bringing flocculi.
Some of our leading druggists now make for medicinal use a
liquid extract of the Nasturtium officinale, and a spirituous juice
(or succus) of the plant. These preparations are of marked
service in scorbutic cases, where weakness exists without wasting,
and often with spongy gums, or some skin eruption. They are best
when taken with lemon juice.
The leaf of the unwholesome Water parsnep, or Fool's Cress,
resembles that of the Water-cress, and grows near it not infrequently:
but the leaves of the true Water-cress never embrace the stem
of the plant as do the leaf stalks of its injurious imitators.
Herrick the joyous poet of dull Devonshire dearly loved the
Water-cress, and its kindred herbs. He piously and pleasantly
made them the subject of a quaint grace before meat:--
Lord, I confess too when I dine
The pulse is Thine:
And all those other bits that be
There placed by Thee:
The wurts, the perslane, and the mess
The true Nasturtium (Tropoeolum majus), or greater Indian
Cress grows and is cultivated in our flower gardens as a brilliant
ornamental creeper. It was brought from Peru to France in 1684, and
was called La grande Capucine, whilst the botanical title
tropoeolum,  a trophy, was conferred because of its
shield-like leaves, and its flowers resembling a golden helmet.
An old English name for the same plant was Yellow Lark's heels.
Two years later it was introduced into England. This partakes of
the sensible and useful qualities of the other cresses. The fresh
plant and the dark yellow flowers have an odour like that of the
Water-cress, and its bruised leaves emit a pungent smell. An
infusion made with water will bring out the antiscorbutic virtues of
the plant which are specially aromatic, and cordial. The flowers
make a pretty and palatable addition to salads, and the nuts or
capsules (which resemble the cheeses of Mallow) are esteemed
as a pickle, or as a substitute for Capers. Invalids have often
preferred this plant to the Scurvy grass as an antiscorbutic remedy.
In the warm summer months the flowers have been observed about
the time of sunset to give out sparks, as of an electrical kind,
which were first noticed by a daughter of Linnoeus.
The Water-cress is justly popular with persons who drink freely
overnight, for its power of dissipating the fumes of the liquor, and
of clearing away lethargic inaptitude for work in the morning: also
for dispelling the tremors, and the foul taste induced by excessive
Closely allied thereto is another cruciferous plant, the Scurvy
grass (Cochleare), named also Spoon-wort from its leaves
resembling in shape the bowl of an old-fashioned spoon. This is
thought to be the famous Herba Britannica of the ancients. Our
great navigators have borne testimony to its never failing use in
scurvy, and, though often growing many miles from the sea, yet
the taste of the herb is always  found to be salt. If eaten in
its fresh state, as a salad, it is the most effectual of all the
antiscorbutic plants, the leaves being admirable also to cure
swollen and spongy gums. It grows along the muddy banks of the
Avon, likewise in Wales, and is found in Cumberland, more
commonly near the coast; and again on the mountains of Scotland.
It may be readily cultivated in the garden for medicinal use.
The Cuckoo flower, or Ladies' Smock (Cardamine) from Cardia
damao, I strengthen the heart, is another wholesome Cress
with the same sensible properties as the Water-cress, only in
an inferior degree, while the strong pungency of its flavour
prevents it from being equally popular. This plant bears also the
names of Lucy Locket, and Smell Smocks. In Cornwall the
flowering tops have been employed for the cure of epilepsy
throughout several generations with singular success; though the
use of the leaves only for this purpose has caused disappointment.
From one to three drams of these flowering tops are to be taken
two or three times a day.
By the Rev. Mr. Gregor (1793) and by his descendants this
remedy was given for inveterate epilepsy with much benefit.
Lady Holt, and her sister Lady Bracebridge, of Aston Hall,
Warwickshire, were long famous for curing severe cases of the
same infirmity by administering this herb. They gave the
powdered heads of the flowers when in full bloom-twelve grains
three times a day for many weeks together.
Sir George Baker in 1767 read a paper before the London College
of Physicians on the value of these flowers in convulsive
disorders. He related five cures of St. Vitus' dance, spasmodic
convulsions, and spasmodic asthma. Formerly the flowers were
admitted into the  London Pharmacopoeia. The herb was
named Ladies' Smock in honour of the Virgin Mary, because it
comes first into flower about Lady Day, being abundant with its
delicate lilac blossoms in our moist meadows and marshes:
Lady Smocks all silver white
Do paint the meadows with delight.
This plant is also named--Milk Maids, Bread and Milk, and
Mayflower. Gerard says it flowers in April and May when
the Cuckoo cloth begin to sing her pleasant notes without
stammering. One of his characters is made by the Poet Laureate
Steep for Danewulf leaves of Lady Smock,
For they keep strong the heart.
And so much, as says William Cole, herbalist, in his Paradise
of Plants, 1650, for such Plants as cure the Scurvy.