Nasturtiums are the easiest of summer annuals. The leaves and flowers are edible, with a peppery, watercress-like taste that perks up a salad.
Why do gardeners look down their noses at nasturtiums? If we could forget their slightly common reputation and see these powerhouses of summer color with fresh eyes for a moment, we might all become rabid nasturtium fanciers. Which is a state I’ve wallowed in for some time, poking nasturtium seeds in every bit of soil I can find.
Consider that nasturtiums are the easiest of summer annuals, growing quickly from seed. They’re long-blooming, drought-tolerant and come in trailing, climbing or bushy forms. Leaves and flowers are edible, with a peppery, watercress-like taste that perks up a salad. So why do I rarely see nasturtiums growing in any gardens besides my own?
Perhaps it’s because we all remember carting soggy Dixie cups full of soil and a couple of nasturtium seeds home from grade school. When the poor vines sprouted on the windowsill, no doubt light-deprived and prodded along by little fingers, they always looked bedraggled. But bloom they did, just like the ones I plant each year beneath a hedge of bamboo. They flower their heads off in that most difficult of situations. But their ability to be so prolific is no reason to value these old-fashioned charmers less or relegate them to cottage gardens alone.
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Actually, these are surprisingly versatile flowers, managing to look right at home wherever they’re planted. Recently I visited a decidedly upscale garden featuring bay trees in big, English-style box planters. Golden and orange nasturtiums foamed up around the tree trunks and trailed down the sides of the dark, elegant planters. I’ve also seen nasturtiums flowing out of stainless-steel planters grouped around a sleek infinity pool, their massed flowers and marbled leaves warming up the sophisticated scene.
The famed artist-gardener Gertrude Jekyll employed nasturtiums in her carefully orchestrated herbaceous borders. In midsummer she planted nasturtium seeds to fill in when mounds of perennial baby’s breath (Gypsophila paniculata) died down. The great flower gardener Christopher Lloyd sequenced his borders with a different type of nasturtium. “There’s no more rewarding nasturtium than this,” wrote Lloyd of the perennial climbing Tropaeolum tuberosum. He grew these vines in the Long Border at Great Dixter, draped over the other plants so that as flowers faded in late summer, the colorful, spurred little nasturtium blooms could take over and carry the show.
Botanically, nasturtiums are the genus Tropaeolum. The old-fashioned kind we see most often, and no doubt grew in our long-gone Dixie cups, are T. majus. No wonder nasturtiums prefer bright sunlight; they hail from South America. These rugged flowers do just fine in lean soil and drought, and in fact prefer such arid conditions.
You can eat every bit of nasturtium plants, and people have grown them for centuries for their edibility as well as their near-neon color. The blossoms can be used in stir fries as well as salads. The unripe seed pods are pickled and used as a caper-like condiment and garnish.
Nasturtiums are grown in vegetable gardens not only to brighten up the scene, but also because they repel pests and attract beneficial insects. They also trap or “collect” aphids, which is both a virtue and a drawback. If aphids are hanging out on your nasturtiums they aren’t plaguing other plants. However, it may mean you need to blast your nasturtiums regularly with a hard jet of water to rid them of all those pesky aphids.
The common name of nasturtium means “nose-twister” or “nose-tweaker” because of their tangy, peppery taste and smell. If you give them half a chance, these familiar little beauties will turn your head as well as your nose.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “A Pattern Garden.” Her e-mail address is email@example.com.