Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Summer Weeds: Watercress and Sorrel

The theme for July’s Herbwifery Forum Blog Party is summer weeds hosted by Darcy Blue.

The two plants I have chosen could never really be defined as weeds since they have both been eaten and cultivated by mankind since ancient times, yet grow wild in glorious profusion – watercress by clear, flowing streams and sorrel in meadows.

My first memories of watercress, Nasturtium officinale, are from childhood teatimes when it would be eaten with bread and butter. We all loved the hot, peppery taste. The use of watercress for this meal was promoted during both World Wars when Britain was reliant on home grown food. Studies were carried during World War Two by the Department of Health which showed that watercress promoted children’s growth and was often included in locally-provided school dinners.

Watercress has always been associated with good health. Hippocrates, the Greek father of medicine, is said to have located his first hospital beside a stream on the Island of Kos around 400 BC so he could grow a plentiful supply of watercress to help treat his patients. The ancient Greeks called watercress kardamon; they believed it could brighten their intellect, hence their proverb “Eat watercress and get wit.”

Romans and Anglo Saxons ate watercress to prevent baldness. Egyptian Pharoahs served freshly squeezed watercress juice to their slaves each morning and afternoon in order to increase their productivity. Anglo-Saxons swore by watercress potage to ‘spring clean’ the blood.

Irish monks were said to survive for long periods eating only bread and watercress and referred to watercress as ‘pure food for sages.’ In one of the earliest Celtic stories, “The frenzy of Suibnhu”, the writer describes an Irish valley where madmen went to live for their year of madness.

…he reached ever-delightful Glen Bolcain. It is there the madmen of Ireland used to go when their year in madness was complete, that glen being ever a place of great delight for madmen. For it is thus Glen Bolcain is : it has four gaps to the wind, likewise a wood very beautiful, very pleasant, and clean-banked wells and cool springs, and sandy, clear-water streams, and green-topped watercress and brooklime bent and long on their surface. Many likewise are its sorrels, its wood-sorrels, its lus-bian and its biorragan, its berries, and its wild garlic, its melle, and its miodhbhun its black sloes and its brown acorns. The madmen moreover used to smite each other for the pick of watercress of that glen and for the choice of its couches.”

When I go to visit sacred wells all over the country, I often find large watercress beds nearby. The most memorable have been the sacred wells of Tara in Ireland and Davidstow in Cornwall. Often I will wildcraft enough watercress to take back with me for our next meal as Chris loves watercress, as I do.

The first attempts at commercial cultivation are reported to have been made by a Nicholas Meissner in the 16th century at Erfurt in Germany. It was seen there by Cardon, an officer of Napoleon’s army and introduced by him into France, where it was eaten at almost every meal. The first British Watercress farm was opened in 1808 by William Bradbury at Springhead in Northfleet, near Gravesend in Kent.

Mrs Grieve describes watercress as “A hardy perennial found in abundance near springs and open running watercourses, of a creeping habit with smooth, shining, brownish-green, pinnatifid leaves and ovate, heart-shaped leaflets, the terminal one being larger than the rest. Flowers, small and white, produced towards the extremity of the branches in a sort of terminal panicle.”

She says that watercress is particularly valuable for its antiscorbutic qualities and has been used as such from the earliest times. It is thought to promote appetite when eaten in a salad. Culpepper said the bruised leaves or the juice “will free the face from blotches, spots and blemishes”, when applied as a lotion.

Mrs Grieve also noted watercress was used as a specific in tuberculosis. Its active principles were said to be at their best when the plant is in flower.

I found this really interesting because you never see watercress flowers on commercial plants. I thought I’d never be able to grow watercress myself until I found a way to make a watercress bed in my stream. However, this spring, I found some plants growing in earth in our local garden centre. I planted them in a large pot on our patio and we’ve been eating fresh watercress for the past month. The plants have been flowering the whole time and the stems taste the same powerful peppery taste I remember from childhood, unlike the fairly bland varieties in shops today.

The peppery heat comes from the plant’s mustard oils, which are released when chewed and act as a stimulant to the digestion and the taste buds, while the stalks are succulent and cool. Watercress contains 15 essential vitamins and minerals. It is said to have more vitamin C than oranges, more calcium than milk and more iron than spinach. Watercress is low in fat and very versatile. It also contains beta-carotene, Vitamin A equivalents and antioxidants.

There is also very interesting research being done by the University of Southampton where they are investigating watercress's potential ability to suppress breast cancer cell development. The results are expected to be announced in autumn 2009.

This follows research, carried out by the University of Ulster, Coleraine, and published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in February 2007, which found that watercress increased the ability of cells to resist DNA damage caused by free radicals. It also found that daily intake of watercress significantly reduced levels of DNA damage found in blood cells. DNA damage is considered to be an important trigger in the early stages of cancer.

My second plant is sorrel. Rumex acetosa. Wikipaedia describes sorrel as “a slender plant about 60 cm high, with roots that run deep into the ground, as well as juicy stems and edible, oblong leaves. The lower leaves are 7 to 15 cm in length, slightly arrow-shaped at the base, with very long petioles. The upper ones are sessile, and frequently become crimson.”

To me, when flowering, sorrel looks very much like red dock, except the leaves are larger and curled and taste better! Sorrel has a totally unique taste. I give it to new workshop attendees and tell them it will explode inside their mouth! Mrs Grieves says the sour taste of Sorrel is due to the acid oxalate of potash it contains. Tartaric and tannic acids are also present.

In Tudor times, sorrel was held in great repute in England, for table use, but after the introduction of French Sorrel, with large succulent leaves, it gradually lost its position both as a salad and a potherb.

Maude Grieve gives a resume of what earlier herbalists wrote about sorrel

John Evelyn thought that Sorrel imparted 'so grateful a quickness to the salad that it should never be left out.' He wrote in 1720, 'Sorrel sharpens the appetite, assuages heat, cools the liver and strengthens the heart; is an antiscorbutic, resisting putrefaction and in the making of sallets imparts a grateful quickness to the rest as supplying the want of oranges and lemons. Together with salt, it gives both the name and the relish to sallets from the sapidity, which renders not plants and herbs only, but men themselves pleasant and agreeable.’

Culpepper wrote, 'Sorrel is prevalent in all hot diseases, to cool any inflammation and heat of blood in agues pestilential or choleric, or sickness or fainting, arising from heat, and to refresh the overspent spirits with the violence of furious or fiery fits of agues: to quench thirst, and procure an appetite in fainting or decaying stomachs: For it resists the putrefaction of the blood, kills worms, and is a cordial to the heart, which the seed doth more effectually, being more drying and binding.... Both roots and seeds, as well as the herb, are held powerful to resist the poison of the scorpion. . . . The leaves, wrapt in a colewort leaf and roasted in the embers, and applied to a large imposthume, botch boil, or plague-sore, doth both ripen and break it. The distilled water of the herb is of much good use for all the purposes aforesaid.'

Gerard counted eight different kinds of Sorrel - the Garden, bunched or knobbed, Sheep, Romane, Curled, Barren and Great Broad-leaved Sorrel. He said, 'The Sorrells are moderately cold and dry. Sorrell doth undoubtedly cool and mightily dry, but because it is sour, it likewise cutteth tough humours. The juice thereof in summer time is a profitable sauce in many meats and pleasant to the taste. It cooleth a hot stomach. The leaves are with good success added to decoctions, and are used in agues. The leaves are taken in good quantity, stamped and stained into some ale and cooleth the body. The leaves are eaten in a tart spinach. The seed of Sorrell drunk in wine stoppeth the bloody flow.'

Mrs Grieve also lists the medicinal uses of sorrel. She said, “The medicinal action of Sorrel is refrigerant and diuretic and it is employed as a cooling drink in all febrile disorders. It is corrective of scrofulous deposits: for cutaneous tumours, a preparation compounded of burnt alum, citric acid, and juice of Sorrel, applied as a paint, has been employed with success. Sorrel is especially beneficial in scurvy.”

Apparently, both the root and the seed were formerly used for their astringent properties, and were employed to stem haemorrhage. A syrup made with the juice of Fumitory and Sorrel had the reputation of curing the itch, and the juice, with a little vinegar, was considered a cure for ringworm, and recommended as a gargle for sore throat. A decoction of the flowers, made with wine, was said to cure jaundice and ulcerated bowels, the root in decoction or powder being also employed for jaundice, and gravel and stone in the kidneys.

I’m not sure I shall experiment making a syrup or a flower decoction as I use most of the plants leaves on a regular basis from early spring to autumn in my salads. It is amazing in cheese sandwiches and brings a whole new dimension to salads when mixed with plain lettuce.

The interesting thing about both these plants is how well they serve us during the summer. They cool us and stimulate the appetite when we are feeling at our most sluggish due to heat. They also protect against skin conditions and mineral deficiencies helping to keep us healthy and maybe even contributing to our ability to be wise!

The Watercress site:
Mrs Grieve on watercress http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/w/watcre09.html
The frenzy of Suibnhu http://www.cyberscotia.com/ogmios/texts/suibhne/buile-suibne.html
Mrs Grieve on sorrel http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/s/sorcom64.html
Wikipaedia on sorrel http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sorrel


Rowan said...

Interesting post, I love watercress and know it is a good source of iron but a lot of the rest was new to me. As for sorrel, I'm never quite sure whether I'm seeing sorrel or dock! I think sorrel is the one that my mum called 'vinegar plant' when I was a child though I've never known why. The more I think back to my mum and things she said and knew the more I think that there was agrewat deal more to her than I realised!

Dreamseeds said...

I purchased watercress this week at the health food store and NO COMPARING it to it in the streams!

Karen Vaughan said...

Two of my favorite herbs. I remember scouring the parks and alleys of Seattle for food after my parents had cut me off, finding a motherlode of watercress in Ravenna Park. I had read Adelle Davis who claimed (erroneously as it turned out) that watercress would only grow in clean water. It is also a great source of resveratrol.

I taught my sons to eat sorrel, as my grandmother had taught me. They named it "lemon". Unfortunately other mothers reacted so badly to a young child eating weeds, that I had to tell them to do it only when the adults weren't looking. Alas most adults aren't open to learning from an informed preschooler.