This leafy green vegetable packs a powerful nutritional punch.   

By Corey Williams
December 30, 2019

Though it’s small and rather unassuming, watercress is a nutritional and flavorful powerhouse. Here’s what you need to know about the leafy green: 

What Is Watercress? 

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Watercress is an aquatic leafy vegetable that grows in cool, shallow streams. 

Native to Eurasia, the plant’s medicinal and culinary uses can be traced back to ancient times. The nutrient-packed veggie has been tasked with treating everything from bad breath to blood disorders (when Hippocrates founded the world’s first hospital in 400 B.C.E., he grew watercress outside for this purpose). 

There are also quite a few old superstitions surrounding the vegetable: Ancient Greeks believed eating watercress would make you witty, while Victorians thought it could get rid of freckles. 

The watercress plant, which produces tiny four-petaled white flowers, is recognizable from its small, rounded green leaves. Since its pale green stems are hollow, they float in water. 

From its stems to its leave, the entire plant is edible. While you can eat watercress roots, you probably don’t want to—most people find them rather unpleasant.  

Related: What Is Bok Choy and What Do You Do With It? 

What Does Watercress Taste Like? 

Raw watercress tastes bright and fresh, though mature plants can become slightly bitter. Its somewhat peppery flavor is reminiscent of related vegetables, like mustard greens and wasabi. 

The leafy green loses some of its pungency when cooked. 

Watercress Health Benefits

Watercress isn’t just a healthy addition to your salad—it’s kind of a rock star in the vegetable world.  

In 2014, researchers at William Paterson University put together a list of 41 “powerhouse fruits and vegetables” ranked by the amount of fiber, potassium, protein, calcium, folate, vitamin B12, vitamin A, vitamin D, and other nutrients they contain. 

The leafy green veggie topped the list with a perfect score of 100. 

Though the ability to describe why watercress is so darn good for us is relatively new, the knowledge isn’t: The Persian King Xerxes ordered his soldiers eat the vegetable for its health benefits during his reign from 486 B.C.E to 465 B.C.E.

Here are a few nutritional highlights of the superfood: 

  • One cup of watercress provides more than 100% of the recommended daily intake for vitamin K, which is essential to bone health. 
  • Low in calories and high in nutrients, watercress is considered an extremely nutrient-dense food and may aid in weight loss. 
  • Since it’s packed with powerful antioxidants, watercress could help lower your risk of chronic illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. 
  • The vegetable’s high vitamin C content gives your immune system a necessary boost during cold and flu season. 

Watercress Substitute

Photo: Johnny Autry; Styling: Mary Clayton Carl

Whether it’s out of season or your local farmers’ market is sold out, there are some perfectly adequate substitutes for watercress. 

  • Arugula is probably the closest match you’ll find for watercress. Its flavor is similarly mild and peppery, and it’ll provide you with a similar nutritional boost. 
  • Nasturtium leaves. Let’s be honest: If you don’t have watercress, you probably don’t have nasturtium leaves. But on the off chance you do have access to some, the flavors are remarkably similar. 
  • Radish sprouts. Since watercress and radish sprouts belong to the same family, they have a similar pepper-y kick. Bonus points: They also look somewhat similar, so they’re easy to disguise in certain recipes. 
  • Kale. Though it’s certainly more bitter than watercress, kale is sometimes easier to come by. It’ll make an O.K. substitute in a pinch. 
  • Spinach. Another easy-to-find vegetable, spinach has a completely different flavor than watercress—but you can attempt to mask this with a few heavy-handed dashes of black pepper. 

Where to Buy Watercress

Though well-stocked grocery stores should always carry watercress, the leafy green starts popping up in farmers’ markets in spring. 

Look for dark green leaves without bruising or browning. Avoid watercress that is yellow, wilted, or feels slimy. 

How to Store Watercress

Store watercress like you would soft-stemmed herbs: In a loosely covered glass of water in the refrigerator. This will keep it fresh for up to a week. 

While you technically can freeze watercress, you probably shouldn’t if you plan to eat it raw as it will lose much of its flavor, and its texture will not be as lovely post-thawing. 

If you’re planning to put it in a soup, however, freeze your watercress-loving heart out. 

Related: How to Store Fresh Cilantro So It Doesn’t Wilt

Watercress Recipes

Photo: Kelsey Hansen; Food Styling Karen Ranken; Prop Styling: Audrey Davis

Ready to try your hand at cooking with this incredibly versatile, healthy, and tasty vegetable? We’ve got you covered. From salad to soup, here are some of our favorite watercress recipes of all time: 

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