Lepidium sativum (PROTA)

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Lepidium sativum L.

Protologue: Sp. pl. 2: 644 (1753).
Family: Brassicaceae (Cruciferae)
Chromosome number: 2n = 16, 24, 36


Vernacular names

Garden cress, peppergrass (En). Cresson alénois, cresson des jardins, cressonnette (Fr). Mastruço ordinário, agrião mouro (Po).

Origin and geographic distribution

The exact origin of Lepidium sativum is unknown but is thought to be in Ethiopia and neighbouring countries or in western Asia. Domestication presumably took place in western Asia. Cultivation was already known from antiquity in Greece and Italy, possibly also in Egypt. At present it is cultivated all over the world, including most African countries, mostly on a small scale as a garden crop. It can also be found in the wild as an escape from cultivation, but it is not known whether it occurs anywhere truly wild.


In many parts of the world seedlings of Lepidium sativum are used in salads because of their pungent taste. Whole fruits or seeds are used, fresh or dried, as a seasoning with a peppery flavour. Boiled seeds are consumed in drinks by Arabs, either ground in honey or as an infusion in hot milk. The seed oil can be used for illumination and soap making. In Ethiopia the seed and its oil are primarily used medicinally, but also as condiment and in baking, although the odour of the oil is not pleasant. A paste of the seeds with water is applied to chapped lips, and also against sunburn and other skin problems of humans and animals. The paste is also taken internally with honey to treat amoebic dysentery, and given to animals with stomach problems. The seeds are chewed to treat sore throat, cough, asthma and headache, and in large quantities to induce abortion. They are also applied externally as an insect repellent. In Mauritius pounded seeds in water are used to treat hiccough and stomach-ache. In India the seed oil, like mustard oil, is used to treat hiccough and intestinal problems. The pounded seeds are poulticed on the skin, and have a vesicant and soothing action on bruises and sprains. The seeds are also considered galactagogue, emmenagogue, laxative, tonic, diuretic and aphrodisiac. The mucilage of the germinating seeds allays the irritation of the intestines in dysentery and diarrhoea. The seeds are a panacea in medecine of the Maghreb. The aerial parts are used in the treatment of asthma, cough and bleeding piles. Leaves are mildly stimulant and diuretic, and useful in scorbutic diseases and liver complaints. The roots are used against syphilis. In Europe the herb is used to treat cough and constipation, as a diuretic and to improve the immune system.

Lepidium sativum is extensively used as a test organism in plant physiological studies, as an indicator organism to examine toxicity levels of environmental pollutants, and in experimental studies assessing diverse pathogens.

Production and international trade


The nutritional composition of fresh garden cress seedlings is per 100 g edible portion: water 89 g, energy 134 kJ (32 kcal), protein 2.6 g, fat 0.7 g, carbohydrate 5.5 g, fibre 1.1 g, Ca 81 mg, Mg 38 mg, P 76 mg, Fe 1.3 mg, Zn 0.23 mg, vitamin A 9300 IU, thiamin 0.08 mg, riboflavin 0.26 mg, niacin 1.0 mg, folate 80 μg, ascorbic acid 69 mg (USDA, 2002).

The stem and leaves of Lepidium sativum contain glucosinolates, the main component being glucotropaeolin (benzylglucosinolate). Upon steam distillation the herb yields about 0.1% of a colourless essential oil, with a characteristic pungent odour. The seeds yield about 25% of a yellowish-brown, semi-drying oil with a peculiar, disagreeable odour. The oil is rich in oleic, linoleic and uric acids, and also contains imidazole alkaloids. It has antioxidant properties.

The seedcoat of germinating seeds contains much mucilage, which has an allelopathic substance, lepidimoide. The effects of the germinating seeds were studied to determine the potential for slowing down the hydrolysis of starch to glucose in diabetic persons. The seeds significantly lowered the glycaemic response to a test meal. In the long term (21 days) treatment of diabetics with 15 g seeds/day, there was a significant reduction in the levels of blood glucose at the end of study period. The ethanol extract of the seeds showed significant anti-inflammatory effects against carrageenan-induced rat paw oedema, at a dose of 500 mg/kg. The seed oil has a pronounced oestrogenic activity.

The antibacterial action of Lepidium sativum has been demonstrated in several tests. The extract of the fresh leaves showed strong antibacterial action against Bacillus subtilis and Micrococcus pyogenes var. aureus, but was less effective against Escherichia coli. The antibacterial action depends largely on the age of the plants used. An antiviral effect against the encephalitis virus Columbia SH was demonstrated in a test on mice. An extract of Lepidium sativum decreased the mutagenic effects of a number of pesticides, using Salmonella typhimurium strains as test organisms. The leaves showed significant teratologic effect in tests with rats.


Erect annual herb up to 80 cm tall, more or less glaucous; stem terete or finely striate, profusely branched, glabrous. Leaves alternate, irregularly pinnate, up to 12 cm × 9 cm; petiole up to 4 cm long; leaflets 5–11, in outline ovate or obovate, pinnatisect, the ultimate lobes usually irregularly toothed, sparsely hairy above, glabrous below, leaflets of higher leaves gradually becoming linear, upper leaves usually simple and linear, sometimes lobed or with teeth. Inflorescence a terminal or axillary raceme 1–3 cm long, accrescent to 25 cm when fruiting. Flowers bisexual, regular, 4-merous; pedicel 1.5–4.5 mm long, ascending; sepals ovate, 1–2 mm long; petals spatulate with short claw, up to 3 mm long, white or pale pink; stamens 6, anthers usually purplish; ovary superior, flattened, apex emarginate, style up to 0.5 mm long, stigma capitate. Fruit a round or ovate, flattened silique 4–6 mm × 3–5.5 mm, pale green to yellowish, margins wing-like, apex emarginate, dehiscing by 2 valves, usually 2-seeded. Seeds ovoid, flattened, 2–3 mm long, pale brown to almost black. Seedling with epigeal germination; cotyledons 3-foliolate, leaflets spatulate, lateral ones smaller than central one.

Lepidium comprises about 150 species and is distributed worldwide. In tropical Africa 9 species can be found. Because of the great variability in leaf shape, fruit size and seed colour, many subclassifications of Lepidium sativum have been published, all of them however, without much practical value. For this cultivated species it would be more appropriate to distinguish cultivars. The life cycle of the plant is about 3 months. The flowers of Lepidium sativum are slightly protogynous and have a strong odour, attracting numerous insects that promote cross-pollination. In water, the seeds become covered in slime.


Other botanical information

Growth and development


Lepidium sativum thrives on any rich, light, moisture-retentive soil, but grows best on moist loams. It can be grown at all elevations throughout the year, but in tropical regions it grows best in the cool season. It is rather drought resistant. In tropical Africa it is grown at 750–2900 m altitude, preferring cooler localities at around 2400 m altitude.

Propagation and planting


Lepidium sativum is usually grown as a garden crop or, for example in Ethiopia, in fields mixed with tef or flax. For sprout production, the seeds are sown thickly in rows, covered lightly with soil or not. About 10 days after germination the seedlings can be harvested. Plants can also be thinned if larger plants are preferred. In Europe, the sprouts are sold directly in the small boxes in which they germinated. For seed production, a few plants are left till the seeds are fully mature. The plants are then pulled up, dried and threshed. Serious diseases and pests are not known, but some fungal and viral infections have been recorded, as well as susceptibility to nematodes.

Diseases and pests


Handling after harvest

Genetic resources

Lepidium sativum is widely cultivated and shows quite some variability. It does not seem liable to genetic erosion.


Lepidium sativum will remain a minor vegetable, used widely but in small quantities. The glucosinolates present are known to display several interesting pharmacological activities, which merit further research. In addition, the mucilage from the seeds shows an interesting effect on the rate of starch hydrolysis, which might be promising for the treatment of non-insulin dependent diabetes.

Major references

  • Brotonegoro, S. & Wiharti, W., 2001. Lepidium sativum L. In: van Valkenburg, J.L.C.H. & Bunyapraphatsara, N. (Editors). Plant Resources of South-East Asia No 12(2): Medicinal and poisonous plants 2. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden, Netherlands. pp. 334–337.
  • Burkill, H.M., 1985. The useful plants of West Tropical Africa. 2nd Edition. Volume 1, Families A–D. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. 960 pp.
  • Jansen, P.C.M., 1981. Spices, condiments and medicinal plants in Ethiopia, their taxonomy and agricultural significance. Agricultural Research Reports 906. Centre for Agricultural Publishing and Documentation, Wageningen, Netherlands. 327 pp.
  • Jonsell, B., 1982. Cruciferae. In: Polhill, R.M. (Editor). Flora of Tropical East Africa. A.A. Balkema, Rotterdam, Netherlands. pp. 15–17.
  • Schippers, R.R., 2000. African indigenous vegetables. An overview of the cultivated species. Natural Resources Institute/ACP-EU Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation, Chatham, United Kingdom. 214 pp.

Other references

  • Adam, S.E.I., 1999. Effects of various levels of dietary Lepidium sativum L. seeds in rats. American Journal of Chinese Medicine 27: 397–405.
  • Ashebir, M. & Ashenafi, M., 1999. Assessment of the antibacterial activity of some traditional medicinal plants on some food-borne pathogens. Ethiopian Journal of Health Development 13(3): 211–216.
  • Fleming, T. (Editor), 1998. PDR for herbal medicines. Medical Economics Company, Montvale, New Jersey, United States. 1244 pp.
  • Gurib-Fakim, A., Guého, J. & Bissoondoyal, M.D., 1995. Plantes médicinales de Maurice, tome 1. Editions de l’Océan Indien, Rose-Hill, Mauritius. 495 pp.
  • Jonsell, B., 2000. Brassicaceae (Cruciferae). In: Edwards, S., Mesfin Tadesse, Demissew Sebsebe & Hedberg, I. (Editors). Flora of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Volume 2, part 1. Magnoliaceae to Flacourtiaceae. The National Herbarium, Addis Ababa University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Department of Systematic Botany, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden. pp. 121–154.
  • Kalaycioglu, A., Oner, C. & Erdem, G., 1997. Observation of the antimutagenic potencies of plant extracts against pesticides in the Salmonella typhimurium strains TA98 and TA100. Turkish Journal of Botany 21(3): 127–130.
  • Nath, D., Sethi, N., Singh, R.K. & Jain, A.K., 1992. Commonly used Indian abortifacient plants with special reference to their teratologic effects in rats. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 36(2): 147–154.
  • Patole, A.P., Agte, V.V. & Phadnis, M.C., 1998. Effect of mucilaginous seeds on in vitro rate of starch hydrolysis and blood glucose levels of NIDDM subjects: with special reference to garden cress seeds. Journal of Medicinal and Aromatic Plant Sciences 20(4): 1005–1008.
  • Small, E., 1997. Culinary herbs. NRC Research Press, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. 710 pp.
  • USDA, 2002. USDA nutrient database for standard reference, release 15. [Internet] U.S. Department of Agriculture, Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center, Beltsville Md, United States. http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp. June 2003.

Sources of illustration

  • Brotonegoro, S. & Wiharti, W., 2001. Lepidium sativum L. In: van Valkenburg, J.L.C.H. & Bunyapraphatsara, N. (Editors). Plant Resources of South-East Asia No 12(2): Medicinal and poisonous plants 2. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden, Netherlands. pp. 334–337.


  • P.C.M. Jansen

PROTA Network Office Europe, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 341, 6700 AH Wageningen, Netherlands

Correct citation of this article

Jansen, P.C.M., 2004. Lepidium sativum L. [Internet] Record from PROTA4U. Grubben, G.J.H. & Denton, O.A. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. <http://www.prota4u.org/search.asp>.

Accessed 25 June 2022.