Cress is a group of botanically unrelated plants grown for their sharp, peppery or mustard-like flavor. Broadleaf or curly cress (Lepidium sativum) and upland cress (Barbarea verna) are easier to grow than watercress (Nasturtium officinale), which requires very moist soil at all times. Most people know cress for its use in dainty little finger sandwiches with the crusts cut off, but as yummy as finger sandwiches are, there are lots more opportunities to use cress in your culinary repertoire. For our purposes, I’m focusing on one of the selections, L. sativum, because of its strong peppery flavor and ease of growth.
Cress is invaluable in salads, sandwiches and garnishes for its spicy flavor and finely curled, nutritious leaves. Cress is the perfect complement to egg dishes, including omelets and quiche. Cress soup has an unusual and unique flavor. Cress can also be used as a substitute for spinach in dishes where a stronger flavor is required. Most meat dishes will benefit from adding a little cress at the end of cooking.
All cresses are abundant in vitamins and minerals, containing iron, iodine, phosphorus and sulfur, all of which the body needs. The end result is not only medicinal but also cosmetic, as the nutrients act as a natural blood purifier, clearing the complexion and bringing a clarity and sparkle to the eyes.
Broadcast cress seed over the surface of the soil and cover lightly with soil or compost. Seed can be sown in early spring as soon as you can work the soil or in late summer through fall. Continuous crops will provide you with fresh cress all season long, but starting a crop in the middle of summer may cause the plants to produce flowers too quickly without making enough growth to harvest.
Growing Organic Cress
Cress thrives in full sun to light shade in soil that is very moist, well drained and of average fertility. Sow in all but the hottest months to prevent the plants from bolting or going to seed.
To harvest, cut back plants halfway and they will resprout before flowering. When grown indoors purely for use as sprouts (immature plants), use sprouting trays just as you would for other vegetables and herbs. The sprouting trays don’t require any soil and allow you to harvest the sprouts right at your fingertips all year long.
Cress should always be used fresh. If you can only grow it outdoors but would like to use it year-round, mince it and combine with water in ice-cube trays, and freeze for later use.
Tips for Growing Cress
Cress is suitable for a spot in your herb garden, but ensure that enough space is left for a succession of crops throughout the growing season. Cress can also be grown in containers, which are ideal for growing cress indoors year-round. When grown for sprouts, cress can be grown or sprouted on wet paper towels between two layers of plastic or in a plastic container.
Cress Problems and Pests
Cress rarely suffer from any pests, but mildew can be a problem during excessively hot days if your plant dries out completely, or during consistently wet weather.
Recommended Cress Varieties
L. sativum (broadleaf cress, curly cress) is a reseeding annual that produces deeply cut, lacy leaves on single, erect stems. Small, almost spherical flowers are produced only 3–4 weeks after sowing. It grows 6 inches tall and wide. Grow it on a windowsill and harvest as sprouts, or broadcast it in the garden for a fast harvest (15 days). ‘Bubbles’ produces leaves with ruffled edges and blistered surfaces that are quite hot to taste. This cultivar is also slower to bolt than others. ‘Greek’ produces flat, dissected leaves that are spicy, sweet and nutty in flavor.