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 [128] 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 [129] 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 [130] 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.

[131] 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 [132] 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

of Water-cress.

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, [133] 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

tobacco smoking.

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 [134] 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 [135] 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.