What is Cress?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Cress is a blanket name for a number of related peppery greens in the mustard family. These greens are used in herb mixes, salads, and compound butter, among other things. Many species are very easy to grow, and they make great decorative garden plants in addition to a source of food. Greengrocers and some markets may also carry cress, although it can be extremely perishable, so it should be purchased only when it is needed.

Peat moss can be good for starting cress.
Peat moss can be good for starting cress.

Several different plants are considered cress, including watercress and penny cress. One species, Lepidium sativum, is more heavily cultivated than others. This species is also called garden cress, pepper cress, pepperwort, or garden pepper cress. As the names imply, this plant has a biting, sharp flavor which is quite distinctive and rather piquant. Some people also use the name for Nasturtiums.

Cotton wool pads.
Cotton wool pads.

As a general rule, all of the parts of a plant are edible. Most people use the leaves, since they are packed with iron, calcium, folic acid, and vitamins C and A. The stems, flowers, and seeds of the plants are also edible, however. In some cases, cooks use entire immature seedlings for a unique flavor, look, and texture. Typically, it is used in relatively small amounts, because the peppery flavor can get overwhelming. Especially in the Old World, cress is a very common inclusion in salads and sandwiches, since the unique and zesty flavor makes a dish more lively.

When selecting cress, look for firm, evenly colored, rich green specimens. Avoid plants with any signs of slime, wilting, or discoloration. It can be stored under refrigeration in plastic for up to five days. To prolong the life a bit, stick the stems in a water filled glass and bag the glass, refrigerating it until it is needed. Leave the greens on the stems until they are ready to be used and wash them before use to remove residual dirt and other materials.

Growing cress is remarkably easy. Soak cotton wool or peat moss in water and stuff it into a small pot. Sprinkle seeds on top, and keep them well watered until they start to sprout. Keep the plant in a light area, but not in direct sunlight, and keep watering. As it matures, you can harvest the whole young leaves or let the plant grow to a larger size so that it will develop big, peppery leaves. The cress will be usable within about five days of planting.

Cress greens can be a peppery addition to a green salad.
Cress greens can be a peppery addition to a green salad.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I have never grown my own cress but knowing it would be ready to eat in 5 days sounds wonderful. If it is this easy to grow, I wonder why more people don't do this at home. You could have an endless supply of greens that would be fresh and healthy for you all year long.


I enjoy adding penny cress to salad and sandwiches. The only negative thing I have found is that it doesn't last nearly as long as other greens I buy.

I have tried putting the stems in water and refrigerating them that way. This seems to keep the cress crisp until I am ready to use it. I really don't like greens that have wilted and this way I can have fresh, peppery greens as long as I use them within a week.


When I am adding greens to a sandwich, I like to use cress because of the slightly spicy taste it gives to the sandwich. Just a little bit can go a long way though, and I definitely wouldn't want to make a whole salad with this.

I usually pick this up at the farmers market from time to time. It doesn't seem to be readily available in the stores where I live, so I take advantage of buying it when I can.


I am not much of a gardener but thought it would be easy to at least grow my own lettuce for salad. I planted some watercress not realizing that it would have such a peppery, hot taste to it.

It was too hot for me to enjoy and every time I tried to eat a salad with watercress I would end up coughing. Even though it was easy to grow, I wouldn't plant it again because I ended up letting it go to seed without using it. There are other varieties of salad greens that I prefer instead of watercress.


this article is very educational and well understood in the young mind. i appreciate the time the writer has spent on this piece.

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