Watercress—A Kindred Herb

By Steven FosterWatercress, Water Cress, Nasturtium officinale, Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum

As we transition through the seasons, signs of the past blend with what is to come. Cool spring-fed creeks hold for me a reminder of spring; before winter has yet to begin. Perennial and annual wildflowers along creek banks have gone to seed and turned dormant. The leaves of deciduous woody plants fade from green hues to fall colors, whether vibrant or dull. It’s easier to get to the water’s edge, though stick-tights, beggar’s lice, and other hooked, barbed or Velcro-like seeds and dry fruiting bodies will snare your clothing, hitching a ride, choosing you are their seed-dispersal vector.

One plant that hunkers down during the hot weather, then turns lush in spring fed moving water in the Ozark winter is watercress. Bunches of watercress sometimes make their way to groceries or places where specialty vegetables are sold. As a rather hot-tasting mustard, one can only eat so much of it. Watercress is best used as a secondary leaf ingredient in a fresh salad or a great soup vegetable.  It is a kindred herb, a neglected free food, best at this time of year before it flowers and produces seed in the spring, at which time the leaves become more pungent and less palatable. By Thanksgiving ,watercress has shed it’s straggly summer growth and its fast-growing leaves are tender, lush and vibrant. Take it from waters that are free from pollutants, as the leaves can uptake toxins and heavy metals from water. Of course, you should wash it well before consuming the leaves.

Botanists now call it Nasturtium officinale, after a few years of suffering through the Latin Watercress, Water Cress, Nasturtium officinale, Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticumname Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum. It is not to be confused with our garden nasturtium with its bright orange and yellow flowers. That plant, Tropaeolum majus hails from the Andes, and borrows  its common name from the Latin name of watercress, given their similar flavors, though they are unrelated in every respect. The essential oil in watercress leaves have organosulphur compounds that give them their bite and distinctive flavor.

It is impossible to determine where this plant originates. It occurs in virtually every country with cool fresh, running water. It was observed in America as early as 1630, and was likely already here before Europeans arrived. Here is a plant that defies all cultural and geographic barriers and blurs the line between food and medicine.

Copyright 2013 Steven Foster. Photos created 19 October 2013, Spring Creek, Rockbridge, Missouri

Derived from Eureka Nature column, 24 October 2013, Eureka Springs Independent Newspaper

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Steven Foster

Describing her first visit with Steven Foster in 1977, Harvard University botanist, Dr. Shiu Ying Hu (1908-2012), wrote, “Our conversation reminded me of something that Confucius said two thousand years ago. ‘In any company of three persons, there must be one who can be my teacher’. . . I found in Steven Foster a teacher who could share a profound knowledge of economic botany, particularly in the cultivation and uses of herbs.” In 1974, at age 17, Steven Foster, began his career at the Sabbathday Lake, Maine, Shaker Community Herb Department —America's oldest herb business, dating to 1799. There he established three acres of production gardens and managed 1700 acres for the commercial harvest of botanicals. For forty-three years, Steven has photographed and researched herbs from the Amazon rainforest to the highlands of Vietnam. Foster has over 900 photo-illustrated articles published in a wide range of media. Steven also served as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the American Botanical Council, and a Contributing Editor to the organization's journal, HerbalGram. Steven is the author, co-author and photographer of eighteen books, including the NEW 2014 Third Edition of A Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants: Eastern and Central North America (with James A. Duke), along with National Geographic’s Complete Guide to Medicinal Herbs (2010), and A Desk Reference to Nature’s Medicine (2006, with Rebecca Johnson), awarded a 2007 New York Public Library “Best of Reference.” He is senior author of three other Peterson Field Guides, including A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs (with Dr. James A. Duke), 1st & 2nd editions, 1990, 2000; A Field Guide to Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs with Dr. Christopher Hobbs, (2002); and A Field Guide to Venomous Animals and Poisonous Plants of North America (with Roger Caras, 1995). Other titles include Herbal Emissaries: Bringing Chinese Herbs to the West (with Prof. Yue Chongxi, 1992); Herbal Renaissance (1994); among others. Foster makes his home in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.