This section is from the book "Meals Medicinal", by W. T. Fernie. Also available from Amazon: Meals Medicinal: With "Herbal Simples" Curative Foods From the Cook in Place of Drugs From the Chemist.
Comprised among Cresses for the table, either in salads, or as vegetable condiments, yet withal salutary to the health as containing sulphur, and mineral salts, are the Water Cress, the Garden Cress, the Winter Cress, and for special occasions some other Cresses. Simon Paulli has said: "An evident proof that these herbs, so useful against scurvy, are enriched with volatile salts, more especially in the spring time, is this: that if we prepare an essence, or a tincture thereof, at the end of April, or at the beginning of May, 'twill look red like Chio, or Malvatic wine, - which it will not do at other seasons of the year".
All the Cresses have a pungent, stimulating taste, because of their sulphuretted essential oil. Formerly the Greeks attached much value to the whole order of Cresses, which they esteemed as beneficial for the brain. A favourite maxim with them was, "Eat Cresses, and get wit".
The Water Cress (Nasturtium Officinale) is of superlative remedial worth, and is therefore highly popular at table. This Cress contains a sulpho-nitrogenous oil, iodine, iron, phosphates, potash, with certain other mineral salts, a bitter extract, and water. Its volatile oil, which is rich in nitrogen combined with some sulphur, is the sulpho-cyanide of allyl. Thus this familiar plant is so constituted as to be particularly curative of scrofulous affections. Dr. King Chambers writes (Diet in Health and Disease): "I feel sure that the infertility, pallor, fetid breath, and bad teeth which characterize some of our town populations, are to a great extent due to their inability to get fresh antiscorbutic vegetables as articles of diet; therefore I regard the Water Cress seller as one of the saviours of her country".
Tennyson, the faithful poet of nature, tells in the rippling musical metre of his famous Brook:-
"I linger by my shingly bars, I loiter round my Cresses".
Again, on account of its chemical constituents, this herb is deservedly extolled as specific against tubercular disease, particularly of the lungs. Haller says: "We have seen patients in deep decline cured by living almost entirely on this plant".
Its active principles are at their best when the herb is in flower. The leaves remain green when grown in the shade, but become of a purple-brown (because of their iron) when exposed to abundant sunshine. In France the Water Cress, accompanied by oil and vinegar, is eaten at table, with chicken, or with a steak. The Englishman takes it at his morning, or evening meal, with bread and butter, or at dinner in a salad. The plant contains 2 per cent of sugar, and a little starch.
"Our Cambrian Fathers, sparing in their food, First broil'd their hunted goats on bars of wood: Sharp hunger was their seasoning; or, they took Such salt as issued from the native rock; Their sallading was never far to seek, The poinant watercress, and sav'ry leek."- Art of Cookery.
The Latin name Nasturtium has been given to this Water Cress because of its pungency when bruised and smelt at, from nasus, a nose, and tortus, turned away; it being, so to say, "a herb that writhes, or twists, the nose".
The True Nasturtium (Tropceolum Majus), Or Indian Cress, is cultivated in our gardens as an ornamental creeper, with brilliant orange-red flowers, and producing familiar "nuts," or "cheeses," resembling those of the mallow; which serve also as a substitute for capers in pickle. This plant partakes of the sensible and useful qualities of the other Cresses. The flowers make a pretty, palatable, and wholesome addition to salads; the bruised leaves emit a pungent smell; whilst the flowers by themselves (resembling golden helmets) give out a quite distinct, and delicious scent.
For the cleansing and healing of scrofulous sores a Water Cress cataplasm, applied cold, in a single layer, and with a pinch of salt sprinkled thereon, makes a most useful poultice; as also for resolving glandular swellings. Water Cresses squeezed and laid against warts were reputed by the Saxon leeches to work a certain cure on these excrescences. 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 watercress".
Persons who drink too freely overnight, appreciate the Water Cress for its power of dissipating the fumes of the liquor next morning.
The Garden Cress (called Lepidium sativum, from satum, a pasture) is the sort which is commonly coupled with the herb Mustard in our familiar "Mustard and Cress." It has been grown in England since early in the sixteenth century, and its other name, Town Cress, refers to its being cultivated in "tonnes," or enclosures. The plant contains sulphur, and a special ardent volatile medicinal oil. Its small leaves, in combination with those of our white Garden Mustard, are excellent for relieving rheumatism, and gout. This Cress is further a preventive of scurvy, by reason of its mineral salts. "Being green," said Wm. Coles, in his Paradise of Plants (1650), "and therefore more qualified by reason of its humidity, the Garden Cress is eaten by country people, either alone with butter, or with lettice, and purslane, in sallets, or otherwise." It was known of old as "Passerage" (from passer, to drive away, and rage, madness) because of its reputed power to expel hydrophobia. Thus the twin plants Mustard and Cress are happily consorted for invalid use, playing a common curative part like the "two single gentlemen rolled into one" of George Colman the younger.
As already stated, they are especially rich in curative volatile salts during April and May. By a fortunate correspondence it is in the spring time that scrofulous and scorbutic affections become most active, because of the bodily humours being then in a ferment. "How to know ye King's Evill," as stated in the Arcana Fairfaxiana (1610), "is to take a grounde worme alive, and lay him upon ye swelling, or sore, and cover him with a leafe. Yf it be ye disease ye worme will change, and turn into earth; yf it be not, he will remain whole, and sounde".