“I love my nasturtiums,” Mom declared years ago as she led me on a walk through her extensive garden.
The nasturtiums were everywhere. Every color imaginable — from solids pinks, reds, yellows, and oranges, to multicolored mixes. The long stems wove through and around the other plants, cushioned by the large umbrella leaves that served as canopies to protect the delicate flowers.
“I tried them in pots,” (she was still talking). “But they seem to prefer taking over the garden. I even have some draping the railing of the back steps. Your great grandfather had lots of nasturtiums, too. I guess that’s where I inherited my love for this plant.”
But I didn’t take to the plant at first. It appeared to be overly invasive with its spindly stems and overbearing leaves. After Mom passed away, I decided to honor her memory by planting some nasturtium seeds. Within days, the plants popped up and quickly spread across the front gardens where I planted them.
Since then, nasturtiums are my must-have addition to any new garden space. The seeds are easy to collect and as long as the chipmunks don’t dig up the seeds before they sprout, the plant is easy to grow. Very rewarding, too, with its vibrant splashes of color.
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As I enjoyed Mom’s nasturtiums (which is how I’ll always think of them), I started to learn more about the plant. I was surprised to find out many people eat them: leaves, stems, and flowers. I guess I’m too busy enjoying their luscious display to think about harvesting my garden mosaic. But from medicines to salads and pesto, and even fruit smoothies, nasturtiums are a versatile and useful plant.
Part of the genus Tropaeolum, one of the seven plant species in the Brassicaceae or cabbage family, nasturtiums includes about 80 species of both annual and perennial herbaceous flowering plants — some which can survive winter conditions in higher altitudes. The plant was so named by Carl Linnaeus because it produces an oil that is similar to watercress.
Native to South and Central America, it was introduced to Spain in the 16th century. However, nasturtiums weren’t considered edible until the plant was introduced to the Far East where it was both eaten and made into tea. With a mild peppery flavor and a smell similar to mustard, nasturtiums were also known as Indian cresses.
How To Grow Nasturtiums
Easy to grow, nasturtiums are a popular addition to any garden. Starting from seed, the showy, umbrella-shaped leaves will pop up within a week, but flowers will take a little longer. The plant is like a spider casting its net, spreading helter-skelter across the garden space before sporting its showy flowers of brilliant oranges, yellows, reds, and variegated combinations.
Nasturtiums do well in pots or planted right in the garden in well-drained soils. They enjoy the sun but don’t like it when it’s too hot, dry, or muggy. My nasturtiums struggle all summer, and then come fall when the temperatures are cooler, they seem to explode with colorful flowers and plenty of the large, umbrella-shaped leaves trailing all through the garden space.
The plant does attract pests, though. In hot, humid climates, it becomes a haven to mites which will quickly monopolize the leaves, causing them to turn brown and crumble. Spraying with an environmentally friendly insecticidal soap at the first sign of mite invasion and pinching off the dead, brown leaves to discard immediately, will help this hearty plant recover and burst forth with more leaves and new flowers.
I grow nasturtiums for their cheerful colors, and personally, I wouldn’t choose to harvest the plant at its peak. However, I have tried it on occasion, and it not only adds a little kick to a salad or buttery spread, it’s also a brilliantly colorful addition that adds a bit of visual pizazz.
In fact, nasturtiums are often used to decorate wedding cakes — not for the taste, but for the beauty they add. The slightly peppery taste of nasturtiums adds a kick, but the real bonus is the nutritious minerals found in this charming plant.
The leaves and the flower petals are edible and packed with nutrition, most significantly, a high level of vitamin C. In salads (or any foods really), the addition of nasturtiums to one’s diet can improve the immune system. In teas, it helps tackle sore throats, coughs, colds, and bacterial and fungal infections.
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Also containing high levels of manganese, iron, flavonoids, and beta carotene, nasturtiums are effectively used in traditional as well as naturopathic medicines. Its antibiotic properties are known to be most effective when you harvest the leaves before the plant starts to flower. It’s even used to treat hair loss.
If you’re feeling adventurous and your nasturtiums are in full bloom, here are a couple of recipes to add a little zest to your diet.
- 1 cup packed nasturtium leaves washed and dried
- 1 cup packed nasturtium flower petals washed and dried
- 1/2 cup roasted, slivered almonds
- 4 cloves garlic
- 1 cup extra light olive oil
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1/2 cup nasturtium flower stems, washed, dried and thinly sliced
- 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
- In a large bowl, prepare an ice-water bath and set aside.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil.
- Add the nasturtium leaves and flower petals and continue boiling for 10 seconds.
- Drain and place cooked leaves and petals in the prepared ice-water bath. Cool completely.
- Drain again, and add to blender along with slivered almonds, garlic, oil and lemon juice. Purée until smooth.
- Transfer to a bowl and add stems and parmesan cheese. Chill until ready to serve.
- 1/2 cup salted butter, room temperature
- 1 cup packed nasturtium flower petals washed and dried
Place in blender and blend until smooth. Serve at room temperature.
NOTE: To make a colorful variation of garlic bread, add one clove garlic to the above mixture. Once blended, spread over slices of French bread and toast. Enjoy!
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