Watercress- from tasty to toxic; and a book recommendation

Fascioliasis is found in all continents except Antarctica, in over 70 countries,  especially where there are sheep or cattle. People usually become infected by eating raw watercress or other water plants contaminated with immature parasite larvae.

In casual reading, I rarely find mention of watercress in any context, so it’s startling when I do. The most recent popped up in a memoir about Bruce Murray, a New Zealand soldier who had escaped a German POW camp in World War II. After almost encountering a small camp of enemy soldiers, he took cover in the only hiding place he could find-a swamp.

He decided to sit tight, confident the soldiers would move on. They didn’t. His food was soon exhausted, so he was reduced to eating some sort of watercress and a palm-like weed that grew nearby.. which with the swamp water he was forced to drink kept him going.

By the 5th day, half delirious, he walked into the German campsite..they delivered him back to the POW camp.

It took days to recover from the severe gastroenteritis he’d contracted from the swamp

written by Doug Gold

watercress- an aquatic species

In another watercress post, my references came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, USDA, website. In this post I pulled 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.

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
U.S. map showing distribution of Nasturtium officinale
dark areas represent significant presence of watercress

Bruce encountered watercress while being held prisoner in eastern Europe, but watercress has migrated to North America.

Nasturium officinale is
  • a perennial herb that grows at the water’s surface along the edges of cold lakes and reservoirs, and along slow-moving streams and rivers
  • may be a noxious weed or invasive. In arid regions of western states, it can alter function and block streams.

Watercress is
  • an edible green with a peppery flavor that is commonly used in salads, as a garnish, or cooked, and which
  • contains significant amounts of iron, calcium and folic acid, in addition to vitamins A and C.
  • Many benefits from eating watercress are claimed, such as that it acts as a mild stimulant, a source of phytochemicals and antioxidants, a diuretic, an expectorant, and a digestive aid. It may also have cancer-suppressing properties, and is widely believed to help defend against lung cancer. 

In Bruce’s case, watercress kept him from starving.

But watercress can be toxic, causing illness. Bruce developed a gastroenteritis -abdominal cramping, diarrhea, vomiting-which might have been due to a variety of bacteria, parasites, or viruses contaminating the water. But he may have had a case of

Fascioliasis

Fascioliasis is a parasitic infection typically caused by Fasciola hepatica, which is also known as “the common liver fluke” or “the sheep liver fluke.”

Fascioliasis is found in all continents except Antarctica, in over 70 countries,  especially where there are sheep or cattle. People usually become infected by eating raw watercress or other water plants contaminated with immature parasite larvae.

The young worms move through the intestinal wall, the abdominal cavity, and the liver tissue, into the bile ducts, where they develop into mature adult flukes that produce eggs. The pathology typically is most pronounced in the bile ducts and liver.

Fasciola hepatica egg in an unstained wet mount (400x magnification): F. hepatica eggs are broadly ellipsoidal, operculated, and measure 130–150 μm by 60–90 μm. (CDC Photo: DPDx)

Fasciola hepatica egg in an unstained wet mount (400x magnification): F. hepatica eggs are broadly ellipsoidal, operculated, and measure 130–150 μm by 60–90 μm. (CDC Photo: DPDx)

 Fasciola infection is both treatable and preventable.No vaccine is available to protect people against Fasciola infection.

In some areas of the world where fascioliasis is found (endemic), special control programs are in place or are planned. Strict control of the growth and sale of watercress and other edible water plants is important.

Individual people can protect themselves by not eating raw watercress and other water plants, especially from Fasciola-endemic grazing areas. As always, travelers to areas with poor sanitation should avoid food and water that might be contaminated (tainted). Vegetables grown in fields that might have been irrigated with polluted water should be thoroughly cooked, as should viscera from potentially infected animals.

The NOTE THROUGH the WIRE

The incredible true story of a prisoner of war and a resistance heroine

Food poisoning from watercress and swamp water were not the only hazards Bruce Murray faced as an Allied POW in Nazi controlled Europe; despite brutal treatment at the hands of sadistic guards, inadequate food, and inclement weather , he risked execution if caught assisting local partisan resistance fighters.

One such resistance fighter was a young woman, Josefine Lobnik, who worked as a courier for the underground resistance movement., passing documents and weapons . Despite the threat of torture and death if caught, she was determined to fight to free her country from enemy occupation which had already caused her family to lose everything.

Author Doug Gold writes about his wife’s parents, telling the story of how the war and their mutual determination to fight the horrors of Nazi aggression brought them together against all odds. Unfortunately, neither of them lived to see their story brought to life.

I could not put this book down and I think you will find it equally engageing. It is an almost unbelievable love story and tribute to all who are willing to risk everything for the sake of democracy and decency. I would recommend it even if it did not mention watercress.

Praised as an “unforgettable love story” by Heather Morris, New York Times bestselling author of The Tattooist of Auschwitz, this is the real-life, unlikely romance between a resistance fighter and prisoner of war set in World War II Europe.

Amazon

exploring the HEART of health

Thanks for following this blog. If you’re visiting, I would love for you to start following Watercress Words : use the form to get an email notification of new posts. Don’t worry, you won’t get anything else from me. I also want you to find and follow me on Facebook, Pinterest , Instagram, and LinkedIn .

Dr. Aletha

What is watercress? It depends on who you ask.

Watercress contains significant amounts of iron, calcium and folic acid, in addition to vitamins A and C. Many health benefits are attributed to eating watercress , such as that it acts as a mild stimulant, a source of phytochemicals and antioxidants, a diuretic, an expectorant, and a digestive aid. It may also have cancer-suppressing properties, and is widely believed to help defend against lung cancer.

Despite this blog’s name, you may be surprised to learn it isn’t about watercress, at least not exactly. I didn’t anticipate anyone would think it is nor did I plan to write about watercress other than to explain the name. (Which I will come back to later.)

But I’ve discovered that people find this blog by searching for watercress information (something else I didn’t anticipate) and ask questions about watercress. When I started researching watercress, I knew it is worth sharing about.

This post starts a series about watercress; I’ll post every few weeks so please follow and explore the HEART of watercress with me; and I’ll still write about other topics. Why not sign up now?

So, what is watercress?

First,botanists call it Nasturtium officinale, although also known by others-Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum (L.) Hayek, Nasturtium nasturtium-aquaticum, (L.) H. Karst., Sisymbrium nasturtium-aquaticum L., Nasturtium officinale var. siifolium (Rchb.) W.D.J. Koch, .

Robert H. Mohlenbrock, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / USDA NRCS. 1995. Northeast wetland flora: Field office guide to plant species
. Northeast National Technical Center, Chester.

To a horticulturist, watercress is

  • a flowering plant
  • an aquatic, water-loving plant
  • a green perennial plant
  • native to Eurasia and Asia
  • a plant introduced to North and South America, Australia,New Zealand, Europe, and South Africa
  • considered “noxious and invasive” through most of the United States

Nasturtium officinale range map. USDA PLANTS Database.

To the taxonomist, watercress is

KINGDOM Plant
SUBKINGDOMVascular plant
SUPERDIVISIONSeed plant
DIVISIONFlowering plant
CLASSDicotyledon
SUBCLASSDilleniindae
ORDERCapparales
FAMILYCruciferae-Mustard
GENUSNasturtium -yellowcress
SPECIESNasturtium officinale
WATERCRESS CLASSIFICATION

To a chemist, watercress

creates “the myrosinase-glucosinolate bomb.”

The pungent, spicy, and/or peppery taste of members of the Mustard family is due to a defense system known as the glucosinolate-myrosinase system.

When the plants’ tissue is damaged, two compounds within the plant tissues, glucosinolate and myrosinase, break down and produce several bioactive mustard oils . This arrangement is thought to be active against herbivores, fungi, viral and bacterial pathogens, nematodes, and even other plants.

Thus, the distinctive flavors of many members of the Mustard family are due to the types and amounts of hydrolyzed glucosinolate products released.

To a wildlife biologist, watercress

serves as a food source for ducks, muskrats, and deer who eat the leaves of watercress, and the plants serve as shelter for small aquatic life. Yellowed leaves of watercress are consumed by aquatic herbivores such as caddis flies, amphipods, and snails due to the low levels of glucosinolate and myrosinase in the leaf tissues.

Nasturtium nasturtium-aquaticum
Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols.
 Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. Vol. 2: 162. Provided by Kentucky Native Plant Society. Scanned by Omnitek Inc

To a microbiologist, watercress

collected from the wild should be washed carefully prior to eating to avoid accidental ingestion of microscopic parasites, such as the protozoan Giardia, that may be present in untreated water .

To a nutritionist, watercress

contains significant amounts of iron, calcium and folic acid, in addition to vitamins A and C. Many health benefits are attributed to eating watercress , such as that it acts as a mild stimulant, a source of phytochemicals and antioxidants, a diuretic, an expectorant, and a digestive aid. It may also have cancer-suppressing properties, and is widely believed to help defend against lung cancer.

 And to you , watercress is …..?

exploring the HEART of watercress

Thanks for joining me for this overview of the many facets of watercress. In future posts I will explore the nutritional and medicinal uses of watercress, including how to use it as a tasty and healthy food. In the meantime, use the references I’ve listed below to explore watercress until then.

Thanks for following this blog. If you’re visiting, I would love for you to start following Watercress Words : use the form to get an email notification of new posts. Don’t worry, you won’t get anything else from me. I also want you to find and follow me on Facebook, Pinterest , Instagram, and LinkedIn .

Thanks for joining me, I’m glad you’re here.
Dr. Aletha Cress Oglesby

So, obviously this blog is named water-cress, because it’s part of my name. And because as I briefly mentioned above, watercress has health benefits-and so does this blog! So, it seems to fit. What do you think?

Learn more about watercress at these references.
Plant of the Week-Watercress
The watercress glucosinolate-myrosinase system: a feeding deterrent to caddisflies, snails and amphipods

I appreciate the use of photos and graphics available in the public domain from The Plants Database of the United States Department of Agriculture, the USDA.

What is the USDA ?

According the the website, the United States Department of Agriculture focusses on food, agriculture, natural resources, rural development, nutrition, and related issues.

An act of Congress established it in 1962 and President Abraham Lincoln signed it into law, calling it “The People’s Department”, because then half of all Americans lived on farms.

But through our work on food, agriculture, economic development, science, natural resource conservation and a host of issues, USDA still fulfills Lincoln’s vision – touching the lives of every American, every day.

USDA website

President Biden appointed Thomas J. Vilsack Secretary of Agriculture, a job he formerly held under President Obama. Prior to his service as Secretary , Mr. Vilsack served on the board fof Feeding America, a nationwide network of more than 200 food banks that feed more than 46 million people through food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, and other community-based agencies.