Plant seeds in lean garden soil anytime between last frost and the end of June. Don't feed them or you'll get more leaves than flowers.
WHILE SHOWY lilies may trumpet summer, for many gardeners the lowly nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) has long ushered in the warmest days of the year.
Can you think of another flower that’s so utilitarian, appealing and easy to grow? Which is probably why nasturtiums aren’t treasured or coveted like roses or peonies, despite being medicinal, edible and pretty.
Think how many kids have poked a single nasturtium seed into a paper cup, carrying it hopefully home from school to germinate on the windowsill. That’s enough to take the mystique out of any plant.
Maybe many of you, too, love nasturtiums and can’t imagine a summer garden without them. We just don’t talk about them much for fear of sounding … well, boring. There’s nothing glamorous, exotic or exclusive about a nasturtium. Its round, lilypad-like leaves are familiar, its flowers cheerful and homey. You stick nasturtium seeds or starts in the ground and they germinate quickly, grow like crazy, bloom for months and attract hummingbirds.
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As with many ancient flowers, nasturtiums have earned a variety of common names over the years, including cress, because they’ve long been eaten like salad, and “Capucine cress,” because the shape of the flower was thought to resemble the hood on a Capucine monk’s robe. France’s Louis XIV grew nasturtiums in his palace flower beds, and Thomas Jefferson planted nasturtiums in his vegetable garden at Monticello. Monet grew sweeps of nasturtiums at Giverny. People have long picked nasturtiums for nosegays but also used them for medicine. Due to the mustard oil in their leaves, nasturtiums are antiviral, antifungal and antibacterial. You can disinfect your mouth with a nasturtium.
We eat nasturtiums not only for their fresh, peppery taste but also because they’re so rich in vitamin C they’ve been used to prevent scurvy. The pickled flower buds are a substitute for capers, and the peppery-tasting blossoms and leaves have contributed bite and color to salads in many cultures besides our own.
Unfortunately, aphids adore nasturtiums, too. If you catch an infestation early, just blast the little beasts off with a strong jet of water from the hose (aphids are soft-bodied, and this’ll do them in). But if the aphids have really taken over, pull out the infected plants, seal them in a plastic bag and toss in the garbage.
We have a lot more colors, shapes and forms of nasturtiums to choose from than the big, old orange ones many of us remember from childhood. Mostly I remember the distinctive spicy smell, and how nasturtiums spilled out of every window box, pot and flower bed in my mother’s garden by midsummer. You can grow vining, rambling nasturtiums up tripods or trellises, or let them drape down the sides of raised beds. The more compact, mounding types, such as ‘Alaska,’ are better for containers.
I asked Renee Shepherd, of Renee’s Garden Seed, which nasturtiums are best for tossing into potato salads or slicing into blossom confetti to stir into cream cheese. “Years ago, Alice Waters said she liked ‘Empress of India’ best,” says Shepherd. Of course, perhaps Waters just loved the Empress for the contrast of her blue-green leaves against brilliant vermilion flowers.
Shepherd recommends planting nasturtium seed in lean garden soil anytime between last frost and the end of June. Don’t feed them or you’ll get more leaves than flowers.
Shepherd’s favorites? Take a look above.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.