Nasturtiums have long been a gardener’s favourite and recent trends have eased them into the cook’s territory. They add a splash of dramatic colour to otherwise colourless meals. The whole plant is edible; leaves, seeds and flowers, having a spicy, peppery taste.
Nasturtiums fall into the genus Tropaeolum, in the family Tropaeolaceae, are native to Mexico, Central America, and northern South America and were introduced into other regions as cultivated garden plants. Another source suggests that they were discovered in the jungles of Peru in the 16th century. The Conquistadors in the sixteenth century who were mesmerized by their colour and vigorous growth habits first introduced the seeds to botanists in Europe. When it became more widely distributed, it was known in Europe by the common name of Blood Flower, but its botanical name derives from the Greek “tropaeum” which is a pillar erected on a battlefield to display items of armour taken from defeated enemies. The nasturtium flower was thought to resemble a bloodstained helmet, and the leaves a warrior’s shield. The current name, nasturtium, has Latin origins; “nasus tortus” (twisted nose), and refers to the effect that the spicy, pungent scent from seeds and crushed leaves has on humans. They are considered an edible plant with leaves included in salads, and seeds used as an ingredient of mustard and also ground as a substitute for pepper. Peruvian Indians used the leaves as a tea to treat minor ailments such as coughs, colds and the flu, as well as menstrual and respiratory difficulties. Being high in vitamin C, nasturtiums act as a natural antibiotic, and an effective poultice for minor cuts and abrasions. Later, during World War Two, dried ground nasturtium seeds were used as a substitute for black pepper, which was unobtainable.
Nasturtiums are extremely easy to grow, are versatile and full of flavour, and of course their beauty is without question. They require very little attention to thrive in your garden. Just pop a few seeds in some soil, give them some water and room to grow and they’ll be amazingly rewarding. They develop long tendrils, which climb easily up the nearest support. I have grown nasturtiums that happily creep up a neighbouring creeper, adding additional colour to its host.
There are numerous varieties including climbing, variegated leaves and dwarf.
Colours range from a vanilla white to fiery red and even multi-coloured.
Nasturtiums seem to thrive in semi-neglected areas, making them an ideal plant for those parts of the garden that are difficult to maintain. If you feed them too much they will grow huge and green but you won’t get many flowers. Nasturtiums grow quickly from seed and germinate within a week. Within a few weeks you should have healthy plants with flowers, and prolific flowers in due course. They do better in sun, but need regular watering. The soil should not be too rich because you will get more leaves than flowers. The soil can even be slightly sandy and they will thrive. They grow well in containers of any sort, trailing over the rim to create a colourful display. Pick the blooms freely once they start coming, and you will extend the flowering period and have many more during the summer. If you intend using any part of the plant for cooking, remember to avoid using pesticides of any sort.
They self-seed and their peppery leaves help deter snails, aphids, whiteflies, squash bugs, cucumber beetles and other pests. They are therefore ideally suited to plant with tomatoes, radishes, cabbage, cucumbers, and under fruit trees, acting like a security guard in the protection of vegetables. Don’t bother with mulch, compost and fertilizers. They make great plants for those areas in your garden that other plants refuse to grow in.
Nasturtiums leaves have a slight pepper taste. The flowers are also edible, but have a milder taste; it is their vibrant splash of colour that has appeal. Nasturtium seeds are also edible when they are young and green, being used in lieu of capers. The seeds can also be used in a pepper mill instead of black pepper. Nasturtiums have 10 times the vitamin C of lettuce, so a generous portion of leaves and flowers added to salads will appeal to the health conscious.
Try adding the blossoms to salads for a dramatic effect. Nasturtium’s spiciness also spices up and brightens cheese spreads. Both the leaves and the blossoms are decorative additions to sandwiches. For a stunning look, pair orange nasturtium blossoms with violets on open-faced cucumber sandwiches on white bread. Adding a few nasturtium leaves to soups and garnishing the pureed soup with nasturtium blossoms is yet another way of utilizing nasturtiums.
Nasturtium vinegars can be made using the blossoms. Place a variety of different coloured blossoms in a bottle (the more you add, the more ‘peppery’ the vinegar will be), add a clove of garlic and cover with white wine vinegar (make sure the blossoms are totally submerged). Leave to infuse for 4 weeks or so and the vinegar is then ready to use in salads or sauces. As the blossoms lose their colour after a while, remove and replace with fresh blossoms.
As a variation of flavoured butter, try mixing together butter, lemon juice and chopped nasturtium blossoms for a mildly, peppery butter, which enhances chicken fish and dips. For a great starter, the blossoms can be stuffed with a mixture of cream cheese or ricotta cheese, chives and pesto. Guacamole also works well as a filling for the blossoms. The blossoms are fairly fragile, so gently pipe the filling down the throat of the blossom.
Nasturtium seeds can also be used; pick tender green seeds and by pickling them they can be substituted for capers. Soak the seeds in cold, salted water for a few days and then discard the water and place the seeds in a sealed bottle or jar and add hot vinegar. In a few days the seeds will be ready to use. Refrigerate after opening.
Nasturtiums are extremely versatile and lend themselves to many uses in cooking. Try experimenting yourself.