An Extraordinary Superfood
by Dr. Perricone
One of my great joys in researching and writing this book has
been discovering "new" superfoods. And though they may be new to
many readers, they are in fact ancient, known throughout history
for remarkable healing and rejuvenating properties yet all but
forgotten in today's world of fast and processed "food."
Watercress is a case in point. In our modern times, this green is
relegated to serving as a garnish or as a tea party staple in the
form of wimpy sandwiches cut into fancy shapes. Unfortunately,
the vast majority of people do not realize the role of watercress
in keeping us Forever Young, which I hope to remedy in this
chapter. Watercress, like the spices and green tea, contains the
active pharmacophores that control transcription factors and gene
I recently had the opportunity to meet with Richard Burgoon, the
president and owner, and Andy Brown, the vice president of
marketing, of B&W Quality Growers, the world's largest grower and
shipper of cultivated watercress. Its founding family has
celebrated 140 years as watercress farmers.
Though I have long known of the tremendous health and longevity
benefits of the cruciferous vegetables, I was truly amazed to
learn about the remarkable nutrient-rich properties of
watercress. On a tour of one of B&W's wonderful farms, Richard
explained to me that watercress is extremely perishable and a
challenge to grow, requiring the perfect combination of pure and
cold water, ideal weather conditions, and unique soil
requirements. To provide for a consistent year-round supply, B&W
has developed a unique network of smaller sustainable seasonal
farms in six states. This "follow-the-sun" farming model allows
B&W's watercress farms to lie fallow to rest and recharge
naturally each year for a smaller ecofootprint and reduced strain
on the land and environment. Combined, these seasonal farms
qualify the family as the largest watercress growers in the
world, though they seem focused more on quality than on size.
Watercress contains a storehouse of nutrients and has been used
as a tonic since ancient times to cleanse the blood and liver of
toxins and promote an overall feeling of good health. It has been
used in a variety of ways, including to enhance stamina, to rid
the body of excess fluids, and as a great antioxidant.
Hippocrates, the "father of medicine," is said to have
established his first hospital close to a watercress stream so
that he could use fresh stems to treat his patients. Since that
time scientists have identified many of the beneficial compounds
contained in the plant.
Watercress is a juicy, vivid green, aquatic plant that is native
to Eurasia and was introduced to North America, where it may be
found throughout Canada and the United States. The original Latin
name of watercress is Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum, which was
later changed to Nasturtium officinale. Like broccoli,
cauliflower, kale, mustard, horseradish, collard greens, turnips,
and bok choy, it belongs to the family Cruciferae.
This hardy perennial is found in abundance near springs, and in
open running watercourses, shallow creeks, ditches, ponds, lakes,
brooks, and slow-moving rivers - wherever the water is clear and
cool and slow-moving. Watercress thrives in shallow (2 to 6
inches), alkaline water in sun or even in pots of rich alluvial
soil standing in dishes of water, and it has a creeping habit.
The plant has smooth, fleshy stems that bear roundish,
heart-shaped leaflets and small white flowers on the
extremities. It has been used for thousands of years as a
nutritious addition to cuisine and an important factor in herbal
medicine. One of the very first plants cultivated by humans,
watercress was used by Persian and Greek soldiers as a tonic to
improve their health and stamina. Of particular interest to me,
the famed seventeenth-century English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper
recommended this bitter, pungent, stimulant herb to "free the
face" from blotches, spots, and blemishes. In North America,
Native Americans used watercress for liver and kidney trouble and
to dissolve gallstones.
Watercress has risen to a much-deserved starring role in
elaborate culinary preparations. The good news is that it is both
beneficial for the health and tasty to the palate. As mentioned,
it is a popular garnish, and it is delicious in salads. It is
also a delightful addition to herb butters, dressings,
casseroles, soups, and sauces for fish, as well as making
refreshing and nourishing teas. The ancient Romans enjoyed, as do
their descendants, watercress dressed with olive oil and vinegar.
Some of the constituents ofwatercress are volatile oil,
flavonoids, phosphorus, nitrogen, beta-carotene, lutein, iodine,
protein, folic acid, and sulfur (which probably accounts for the
herb's pungent fragrance). It is particularly rich in iron,
calcium, potassium, and vitamin C and includes many other
valuable mineral and vitamins.
Watercress is believed to be an effective diuretic that promotes
urine flow, which helps in clearing toxins from the system. The
diuretic properties help relieve excess water retention and
edema, and it was historically used in heart failure to remove
retained fluid. It is also thought to support good kidney
function and ease urinary and bladder problems. People of many
cultures have also used watercress to break up kidney or bladder
stones. Herbalists have employed watercress to clear toxins from
Watercress is useful in treating skin eruptions, eczema, acne,
rashes, and other skin infections.
In addition, watercress is considered a tonic for the liver. The
herb has been used to promote bile production and flow, which
supports liver function, eases gallbladder complaints, and is
also beneficial to the digestive system. The herb has been
thought to alleviate indigestion and inhibit gas formation.
In Victorian England, before oranges became affordable,
watercress was eaten to ward off scurvy. Indeed, the plant gained
the nickname "poor man's bread" in reference to the working-class
tradition of starting the day with a watercress sandwich-or just
watercress if bread was too expensive! Its high vitamin C content
also helps correct other imbalances due to vitamin C deficiency.
Watercress is thought to be an effective expectorant that helps
to expel excess mucus and is believed to relieve bronchitis,
coughs, and mucus in the lungs.
The high biologically available iron content in watercress is
thought to be useful in cases of anemia, and iron, coupled with
watercress's high folic acid content, made the herb a staple
recommendation for pregnant women in the early 1900s.
Watercress is loaded with nutrients and has been considered an
overall tonic for good health. It has been used to ease the
debility associated with chronic disease; to increase physical
endurance, supporting the ancient soldiers' use of the herb to
enhance the body's immune system; and to stimulate the body's
Watercress was used in the past to help in cases of tuberculosis,
and recent studies have found that it may be effective against
cultures of the tubercle bacillus.
The flavonoids in watercress are said to increase immunity, and
research shows promise in studying watercress's potential role in
cancer prevention and treatment. It is nature's richest source of
a specific volatile mustard oil, phenylethyl isothiocyanate
(PEITC), shown in many animal, and of late human, studies to
fight cancer cells.