This colorful herb and decorative plant began its journey into our gardens and onto our tables from the land of the Incas – the cool mountains of Peru. Spanish conquerors became acquainted with it in the sixteenth century, and packed its large, wrinkled seeds to bring home with them. In turn, English bandits waylaid the Spaniards and brought the booty, including nasturtium seeds, to London in the 1590s. From there, over the next century, the colorful plant was carried throughout Europe and into the Orient.
The Chinese fostered the use of the striking red, yellow, orange and mahogany petals in salads and teas. In both Europe and the Orient, the saucer shaped, wavy edged, dark green, vitamin C laden leaves, colorful petals and fresh seeds added a peppery, watercress-like punch to all kinds of dishes. Pickled flower buds served as a substitute for capers. The name of the plant, coined by a Spanish doctor, means ‘to twist the nose.’
Nasturtiums are a snap to grow. In warmer climates, the plants are treated as a climbing or trailing perennial, but, here in Maine, they must be considered annuals – though we nursed ours along in our unheated greenhouse well into November here in the southern part of the state. Simply sow the seeds directly into light, moderately rich soil in full sun in late spring or early summer, about 1/2 to 3/4 inch deep, and sit back to await the colorful display. They’re ideal for flower boxes and container plants, planted in coarse, porous soil, happily spilling down the sides of the container or climbing up supports as high as 6 feet. Thin the plants to about 8 inches apart. We also start seed in flats and set the plants out as soon as they create their first set of adult-sized leaves.
There’s an added bonus to the color and flavor of nasturtiums: its value as a companion plant. These plants reputedly help control pests if planted around the base of apple trees and deter peach aphids from dining on peppers. They do not seem to be as effective in keeping Colorado potato beetles away from potatoes. Aphids are especially fond of nasturtiums but can be controlled by washing or spraying the leaves, above and below, with a mild soap solution.
The addition of a little nasturtium gives a lift to mild egg and cream cheese dishes. The plant also makes a lovely vinegar.
Nasturtium Flower Vinegar
1 clove garlic, lightly crushed
white wine vinegar
Fill a pint jar with flowers, add the garlic clove and pour in vinegar to the top. Cover, place in a dark place and allow it to steep for several weeks. Strain and bottle.
Nasturtium Cucumber Salad
nasturtium flowers and leaves carefully washed, dried and shredded
3 parts olive oil
1 part nasturtium vinegar or white wine vinegar, and one crushed
1 sprig parsley, minced
1 cucumber, sliced thinly
salt and pepper to taste
Make the dressing of oil, vinegar or vinegar/garlic. Arrange the cucumbers on a dish and drizzle with dressing, salt and pepper. Surround with shredded nasturtium leaves and flowers and serve immediately.
Stuffed Nasturtium Flowers
8 oz. cream cheese or tofu cream cheese 3 Tbsp. mayonnaise or soy mayonnaise
1/4 c. chopped walnuts or pignoli
1/4 c. grated carrot
1 Tbsp. finely minced green pepper
2 tsp. fresh basil, parsley or dill
18 brightly colored nasturtium flowers, carefully washed and dried
chopped chives and/or whole chive blossoms
Soften the cream cheese with the mayonnaise. Combine with the nuts, carrot, pepper and fresh herbs (not the chives). Roll the mixture into little balls and fit them into the blossoms. Decorate a plate with nasturtium leaves and arrange the flowers on them. Sprinkle with the chives.
Pickled Nasturtium Seeds
1/2 pint white vinegar
1 Tbsp. salt
1 bay leaf
8 oz. fresh green nasturtium seeds
Pick seeds carefully so that they don’t shatter. Place other ingredients in a non-reacting pan and bring to a boil. Add the seeds. Cool, then bottle in sterile jars. Use as you would capers.
About the author: Ellie MacDougall picked her nasturtiums from the garden at Blue Sky Farm in Wells.