Q. I grew nasturtiums for the first time ever this year and I loved them! What can you tell me about this flower?
A. Nasturtiums are native to Ecuador, Chile and Peru. They were brought to Europe by Spanish conquistadors in the 1550s. Nasturtium flowers were first seen in the United States as early as 1759 and were planted in Thomas Jefferson's Monticello garden. The famous artist Monet used nasturtiums in many of the backgrounds of his impressionistic paintings.
The Latin name, nasturtium, came about from its peppery taste. The famous botanist Linnaeus gave the plant the genus name Tropaeolum (Latin for shield), because the shield-like leaves reminded him of the practice of displaying shields and helmets of slain soldiers on the trunk of a tree at the scene of a battlefield.
Nasturtium has been used in kitchens for centuries. All above-ground parts of the plant are edible. Overall, nasturtiums have a bittersweet peppery flavor. The pickled seeds are often described as tasting like roasted capers. Nasturtium oil can be extracted and used in cooking foods to give them a spicy mustard-like taste. Nasturtium flowers are an excellent source of vitamin C, iron, manganese, beta-carotene and flavonoids. Nasturtium seeds were used in World War II when the seeds were ground up and used as a substitute for black pepper.
Nasturtium flowers are best used raw. They are commonly added in fine restaurants as a garnish to dishes and are also tossed into green salads, pasta, grain bowls and stir-fries. Nasturtium flowers are often used to decorate cakes. The flowers will keep up to two days when stored in plastic bags in the refrigerator.
Nasturtiums have been used medicinally for centuries to treat minor cuts and scrapes as well as acne and other skin irritations. Nasturtium tea was used for respiratory infections, scurvy and urinary tract diseases. Always consult with your doctor before using home remedies, and do not use any nasturtiums that have been treated with pesticides.
Nasturtiums attract hummingbirds, bees and butterflies and are great companion plants in flower and vegetable gardens. They can repel insects such as aphids and squash bugs, serve as a “trap crop” to draw aphids away from other flowers and vegetables, repel white fly and attract black flies away from cabbages and broad beans.
Nasturtiums do well in poorer soils in full sun or partial shade. Avoid over-fertilizing. Plant the seeds one-half inch in depth in early spring. The seeds will germinate faster if they are soaked in water before planting. My nasturtiums began flowering in May and are still in flower in my garden.
The Empress of India Nasturtium was developed by Burpee and introduced in 1884. Golden Gleam Nasturtium was discovered in 1931 outside of a Mexican convent. Canary Creeper nasturtium is native to Ecuador and Peru and was discovered in the early 1800s.
I plan on using nasturtiums more in my “wild” home garden.
The Plant Medic, written by Ricky Kemery, appears every other Saturday. Kemery retired as the extension educator for horticulture at the Allen County branch of the Purdue Extension Service.