Multiple uses for a resilient flower
by Paula Steers Brown, Contributing Columnist
I have a soft spot in my heart for nasturtiums because they were the first flowers I ever grew. Parents know these fat, round seeds are easy for little hands to plant, so nasturtiums are often included in children’s gardens.
Distinctive round leaves with spoke-like veining often appear within seven to 10 days of planting. The vibrant, cheerful flowers in hot red, orange and yellow attract desirable pollinators, serve as practical companion plants to vegetables and bloom through summer until the first severe frost in autumn. Nasturtiums also grow well inside, so potted ones placed in a sunny room in the fall will clamber up a support to display bright splashes of color throughout the winter.
Nasturtiums can be bushy (Tropaeolum minus) or trailing (T. majus) with myriad uses in the landscape. You can train them to climb up a trellis or to spill out of a window box. Impressionist painter Claude Monet famously used fast-growing, trailing Lobb nasturtiums to astonishing effect in his central path at Giverny which he memorialized in his masterpieces. Boston’s Isabella Stewart Museum displays dramatic 10-feet long trailing nasturtiums in its interior courtyard window boxes, stunning cascades of orange and green against stucco walls.
Low-growing, lush carpets of nasturtiums are valued by gardeners as ground cover or filler in beds where they deter unwanted weeds. Nasturtiums’ large flowers in the orange-red spectrum have exceptionally sweet nectar, so they are a favorite of important pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, and are attractive to hummingbirds.
They are also a top companion planting choice for ground cover around the vegetable patch for their ability to lure aphids and black flies from valuable veggie crops and to repel other pests when grown near cucumbers and squash. Deadheading or picking the spent flowers will prolong blooming.
The lush blooms and disc-shaped leaves are even edible, imparting a peppery flavor to all kinds of dishes. Use them like an herb, chopped and added to salads, pasta or homemade pesto. The round leaves are irresistible additions to tea sandwiches, perfectly fitting a bread or cracker round with a smear of cream cheese. Leaves can be stuffed or topped with meat salads or Middle Eastern rice with spice.
Harvest newly opened flowers in the cool of the morning and store them in the refrigerator in plastic bags, giving them space, where they will last for up to two days. Pinch off the back spur and center which can get bitter and get to the best part, the petals. Blossoms contain vitamin C and look beautifully chopped and swirled into butter. Try nasturtium blossoms in your next smoothie.
President Eisenhower prided himself on his signature vegetable soup into which he added a special herbal ingredient in the final stage of simmering: a tablespoon of chopped nasturtium leaves and stems.
Nasturtiums love the sun and do well in rock gardens, on slopes and in areas that are drought-prone. They thrive in poor soil and can even replenish it. If the plant is allowed to rot in the ground in fall, as they decompose, they deposit calcium, nitrogen, potassium and other minerals, enriching the garden soil.
Although they are considered annuals in Virginia, nasturtiums easily reseed themselves and can be relied upon to return. Do harvest some plants in fall, though, so you can share seeds with neighbors to brighten up their landscapes next year.