How Native Americans use watercress

Knowing that indigenous Americans understood and used plants in a variety of ways , I wondered if and how they might have used watercress. Watercress came to this continent from Europe and is now well established.

After two years on the Trail of Tears, when the Locvpokv Muscogee Creeks arrived in Indian Territory in1889, they placed ashes from their ancestral fires at the base of an oak tree a few miles from the Arkansas River.

This “Council Oak” designated the new village of the Locvpokv, which they called Talasi or “Old Town”. Subsequent white settlers mispronounced the word, eventually creating a new name, Tulsa.

Indian Territory merged with Oklahoma Territory to create the State of Oklahoma and Tulsa, my hometown, is now its second largest city. Native Americans and their culture played an important role in developing this city and still do.

Today, the original oak holds court in the Council Oak Park where tribal members still hold commemorative ceremonies. The grounds feature an ethno-botanical garden displaying plants that Creek Indians used for food, fiber, ceremonial and medicinal purposes. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places since 1976, Creek Council Oak Park is protected and preserved by Oklahoma Historic Preservation zoning.

Native Americans

Knowing that indigenous Americans understood and used plants in a variety of ways , I wondered if and how they might have used watercress. Watercress came to this continent from Europe and is now well established.

The U.S. Geological Survey, USGS, considers watercress a “nonindigenous aquatic species” or NAS. It is native to Eurasia and Asia and introduced to North America by cultivation and dispersed by wind, water, and animals. Characteristics include

  • fast growing, perennial herb
  • aquatic-cold lakes and slow moving streams
  • grows “floating or prostrate in mud”
  • most abundant in summer and autumn
  • flowers March to October
Nasturtium officinale range map. USDA PLANTS Database.
Nasturtium officinale range map. USDA PLANTS Database.

Watercress: nutritional and medicinal

Fortunately I didn’t have to look far. I found an answer in a newspaper published in Tahlequah Oklahoma, about 60 miles from Tulsa.

In a March 15, 2021 article,reporter Lindsey Bark published an interview with Cherokee Nation citizen Melissa Lewis who gathers watercress each year to use in dishes such as smoothies and pesto.

Melissa praises watercress as tasty and nutricious. Since it is an aquatic plant she finds it in local springs away from farming and ranching areas where the water might be contaminated with chemicals and bacteria.

“It’s (watercress) in the family that has other things like wasabi and mustards. They all have that same chemical that’s sulphur-like that gives it that spicy taste.”

Melissa Lewis

In this video watch Melissa gather watercress growing in a local stream.

Watercress-“a desirable weed”

I found another source far west, virtually, in California. In the Tehachapi News . Writer Jon Hammond reviews the history, ecology, and dietary features of watercress.

Watercress (Nasturtium officinale) can be found throughout creeks in Kern County, The Bakersfield California Metropolitan area. Caliente Creek has Watercress growing along its banks in countless places, as does Walker Basin Creek. Tehachapi Creek, Sycamore Creek and Oak Creek also host Watercress in their upper reaches where at least a little water typically flows year round.

Jon says he learned to eat watercress from The Nuwä, the Tehachapi Indian people also known as Kawaiisu or Paiute, who called Watercress by the name poh-oh-pah-toor, meaning “in the water.”Nuwä people ate Watercress raw, often with salt, or boiled and mixed with bacon and eaten inside a tortilla.

According to Jon, watercress has small rounded spade-like leaves, and produces pretty white flowers. Although some references claim that once these flowers appear, the leaves become bitter, he has eaten flowering watercress that did not taste bitter.

He explains watercress can be used in a variety of ways, including in green salads, though it can be quite peppery. The sharpness disappears after cooking , and it is used in soups, roasts, omelets, pesto, and green smoothies.

Of all the invasive plants that humans have inflicted on the environment of North America in the past 400 years, it’s hard to think of one more benign and potentially as useful as Watercress. This plant has been nurturing humans for centuries, and you can grow your own or buy it from a grocery store and try some time-tested recipes.

Jon Hammond

Watercress- a multifaceted plant food

In my watercress posts, I’ve used references from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, USDA, website. I also find info from another government agency, the Department of the Interior, or DOI.

The information is much the same, but looks at watercress from a somewhat different angle.

While the agriculture department’s focus is on farming, food, and nutrition, the interior department focuses on the environment , wildlife, and geology.

NEW MEXICO LAND OF ENCHANTMENT-highway sign
Welcome sign at the New Mexico state line

A historic first-a Native American bcomes DOI Secretary

Secretary Deb Haaland made history when President Biden appointed her to serve as a cabinet secretary. She is a member of the Pueblo of Laguna and a 35th generation New Mexican. Since the DOI includes the Department of Indian Affairs, her appointment is fitting.

Secretary Haaland’s story is fascinating in several ways-

  • her father was a 30-year combat Marine who was awarded the Silver Star Medal for saving six lives in Vietnam; he is buried in Arlington Cemetery
  • her mother is a Navy veteran who served as a federal employee for 25 years at the Bureau of Indian Affairs
  • she used food stamps at times as a single parent, lived paycheck-to-paycheck, and struggled to put herself through college
  • At 28 years old, she enrolled and earned an English degree at the University of New Mexico (UNM) and later earned her J.D. from UNM Law School. 
  • she ran her own small business producing and canning Pueblo Salsa
  • she became the first Native American woman to be elected to lead a State Party
  • she was one of the first Native American women to serve in Congress, where she focused on environmental justice, climate change, missing and murdered indigenous women, and family-friendly policies.  
We visited the Taos Pueblo in northeastern New Mexico. Unfortunately it is now closed to the public due to COVID-19 concerns.

You may enjoy exploring these resources about watercress and other plants.

The Rich History and Flavor of Native American Recipes
The Wild and Native Foods We Should Be Eating

exploring the HEART of watercress as food

I appreciate all of you who are following Watercress Words, and if you aren’t I invite you to join the wonderful people who are. You can meet some of them in the sidebar, where you can click on their image and visit their blogs. Use the form to get an email notification of new posts. Don’t worry, you won’t get anything else from me.

I hope you will take the time to explore Native American culture where you live; if it’s anywhere in North, Central, or South America you’ll likely find some aspect of their rich culture and traditions.

Dr. Aletha

a man and woman both on horses
We enjoyed a sunset horseback ride while visiting Santa Fe and Taos in New Mexico.

Watercress and kidney stones; what’s the connection?

Oxalate is a waste product of the body’s metabolism but is also found in many foods including peanuts, rhubarb, spinach, beets, Swiss chard, chocolate, sweet potatoes- and watercress.

Despite the name, I didn’t plan to write a blog about watercress; it’s more of a play on words using my family name and a description of watercress -unique, tangy, nutritious, multifaceted-to name a blog about health.

But peoplesearching the web for information about watercress find this blog and the most common questions they need answered include

  1. Does watercress cause kidney stones?
  2. Can I eat watercress if I’ve had kidney stones?
  3. Does watercress cure kidney stones?
Big rocks on a grassy slope
These are stones. Kidney stones are called renal calculi.

What are kidney stones?

Stones, or urinary tract calculi, don’t usually cause symptoms as long as they stay in the kidney. But if they migrate down into the ureter, the tiny tube that connects the kidneys to the bladder, trouble begins. As the stones try to wiggle their way down the narrow passageway, spasms of pain result; and the bigger the stone the worse.

kidneys and urinary system graphic
The urinary tract- kidney, ureters and bladder

Fortunately, most stones less than 10 mm, or about 3/8 of an inch, eventually pass into the bladder and out the body through the urethra. Some get stuck and must be removed. Occasionally, large stones can block the kidney, leading to infection. But , once you have had a stone, you want to prevent another.

What causes kidney stones and why care about oxalate?

We know what substances cause most stones- chemicals that normally pass through the urine but  sometimes build up, harden and form into tiny rock-like structures called calculi. Calcium causes 95% of calculi, while the other 5% are made of uric acid, struvite, or cystine.

Calcium can’t travel out of the body alone, it needs a companion, either phosphate or oxalate. So people who have too much oxalate in their blood are at risk of calcium oxalate stones, the most common type- either from

Watercress and oxalate

Oxalate is a chemical composed of carbon-C and oxygen-O molecules. It combines with other elements to form salts, one of which is calcium oxalate.

Oxalate is a waste product of the body’s metabolism but is also found in many foods including fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, grains, legumes, and even chocolate and tea. Some examples of foods that have high levels of oxalate include peanuts, rhubarb, spinach, beets, Swiss chard, chocolate, sweet potatoes- and watercress.

So to answer the questions-
  1. No watercress itself does not cause kidney stones, but the calcium and oxalate in watercress does.
  2. It depends. If you did not have a calcium oxalate stone and are not prone to that type, you should be able to eat watercress with no worries. If you have had multiple calcium oxalate stones, especially if they were large and required surgery, you probably will want to avoid any oxalate containing foods at all.
  3. Not exactly, but the calcium in watercress binds oxalate , removing it from the body in the urine. So there is less oxalate to make more stones.

How to limit intake of oxalate rich foods.

If you do choose to avoid high oxalate foods, this chart from the National Kidney Foundation will help you choose the right foods.

Other ways to prevent kidney stones

Drink enough water to produce 2-2.5 quarts/liters of urine every day.

A high fluid, preferably water, intake can prevent build up of these stone causing chemicals. At least 2 quarts/liters daily is recommended, more if one does heavy physical activity , sports, or lives in a hot climate.

Limit the amount of sodium, salt, in the diet.

Since the majority of stones contain calcium, it might make sense to limit calcium. But the kidneys spend more time filtering sodium; so with less sodium, more calcium can  be flushed away and so it’s not making stones.  Here are 5 tips to reduce salt intake from WebMD.

Limit intake of certain animal proteins.

High purine foods can cause the less common uric acid stones. To prevent uric acid stones, cut down on high-purine foods such as red meat, organ meats, beer/alcoholic beverages, meat-based gravies, sardines, anchovies and shellfish.

a basket filled with fruits and vegetables
a LIGHTSTOCK.COM image, an affiliate link for stock photos and other media
Eat a whole foods, plant based diet.

Although watercress and other greens contain oxalate, it’s probably not necessary to avoid them entirely; they also are a good source of calcium which attaches to the oxalate, removing both from the body. Moderate amounts with adequate fluid intake should be safe, unless your doctor tells your otherwise.

  • Follow a healthy diet plan that has mostly vegetables and fruits, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products.
  • Limit sugar-sweetened foods and drinks, especially those that have high fructose corn syrup.
  • Limit alcohol because it can increase uric acid levels in the blood and avoid short term diets for the same reason.
  • Drink beverages with lime and lemon juice.

This information is current as of the publication date; it is general medical information that helps doctors and patients make decisions about what is right for them. Medical recommendations and practice changes as we learn new things. If you wonder what is right for you , please discuss with your doctor before taking any action.

Explore further

This was a simple explanation about kidney stones but you can get more detailed info at these links.

the National Kidney Foundation

Watch a brief video about kidney stones from MedlinePlus .

Explore the causes of excess oxalate in detail, especially the rare genetic causes, at the Oxalosis and Hyperoxaluria Foundation.

Doe and Faun White-tailed deer drinking at a farm pond in Stanly Co., NC on Aug. 19, 2000.
Doe and Faun White-tailed deer drinking at a farm pond in Stanly Co., NC on Aug. 19, 2000. copyright Daniel E. Wray

I don’t know if deer get kidney stones, but if so, they are doing the right thing. I like this photo from the LIGHTSTOCK.COM collection. (affiliate link)

exploring the HEART of health

Thank you for joining me to explore the HEART of health. I hope you’ve learned something new about kidney stones; I hope you never have one! Please contact me about topics you want to read about.

I appreciate all of you who are following Watercress Words, and if you aren’t I invite you to join the wonderful people who are. You can meet some of them in the sidebar, where you can click on their image and visit their blogs. Use the form to get an email notification of new posts. Don’t worry, you won’t get anything else from me.

Dr. Aletha

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