My introduction to Nasturtiums was a sensory delight. My mother led me to the glorious bright flowers and showed me how to suck out the sweet nectar. It’s a powerful memory and one that I hope that I have passed on to my children. I introduced them to these cheerful blooms the same way. I have so many wonderful garden memories that I am grateful for, like learning how to “snap” Snapdragons and the taste of green beans crisp and fresh, straight from the vine. Talk about connecting to nature! But enough of that. We’re here for Nasturtiums today and there’s so much more to this versatile and nutritious plant than sucking the nectar.
It’s hard to know what to discuss next given the richness of the subject. There’s kitchen applications of course, but this is also regarded as a medicinal plant by many and it can also be used in gardens as a part of organic pest control.
Let’s start with the name. If you’re not a history or language nerd I won’t be offended if you skip to the next paragraph, but I find this stuff fascinating! Its scientific name is Tropaeolum majus which is interesting because that makes the genus Trapaeolum rather than Nasturtium which is the name of a genus in the Brassica family containing seven different species, like Watercress. There’s another link to the Brassica family which I will go into later when we discuss organic pest control. The common name Nasturtium is from Latin meaning “nose twist” and refers to its peppery flavour. It is from South America and was first described by Carl Linnaeus who made a significant contribution to the way we classify and describe living organisms.
Now, let’s get into the kitchen! You can eat the flowers, the leaves, the stems and the seeds. Before I get carried away with the nutritional benefits let’s talk Nasturtium as ingredient, because for me, no food is just about nutrition, it has to be about taste as well! That’s why I eat far too much ice-cream, chocolate and licorice… because, yum!
So far I have been quite boring in my use of Nasturtiums. Partly because I am time poor and partly because I have two children who don’t react well to cooked green stuff. I love Nasturtium in a salad, just a little peppery zing that adds flavour and spice. Seriously good. By the way, the flowers are lovely in salads too with a milder flavour than the leaves and sometimes you get the slightest sweet nectar aftertaste! I also put it on sandwiches instead of lettuce. I don’t go crazy with it, single layer only. In my experience, it’s best used sparingly. It’s delicious with two slices of fresh bread, two slices/layers of pastrami, a layer of thinly sliced cheese and thinly sliced tomato. Hold the salt and pepper! The pastrami and cheese supply the salt and the Nasturtium leaves and the pastrami supply the pepper.
How else can it be used in the kitchen?
- Stirfries (replacing baby spinach)
- Pizza (replacing rocket)
- Seeds can be pickled, also known as “Poor Man’s Capers”
- Flowers can be used for decorating baked goods and you aren’t restricted to the fresh flower. The dried petals hold colour well and they can also be candied to make them extra sweet.
The nutritional benefits of Nasturtiums make me wonder why it isn’t a staple in our diets. In addition to the vitamins and minerals the unique chemical structure of the plant makes it easy for our bodies to absorb the nutrients. The leaves and flowers have high levels of vitamin C and also contain vitamin A and D. The vitamin C level along with other compounds makes them an excellent antioxidant. The leaves and flowers are also a good source of Zinc, Copper and Iron and trace elements like Magnesium, Potassium, Calcium and Phosphorus. Medical sources do advise consumption in moderation, however, especially of the seeds, as some studies suggest large quantities can be harmful to stomach and kidneys. Like most things in life, best enjoyed in moderation.
Medicinal uses go back in history to the native people of South America. The National Center for Biotechnology Information (Link to review paper) in the USA lists its uses as follows:
- Respiratory diseases
- Digestive issues
- Dermatology (the oils improve skin and hair condition)
- Hypotensive (lowers blood pressure)
Nasturtiums can have other benefits in the garden as a pest deterring companion and as a decoy crop. As an added bonus they attract lots of beneficial insects that will help control the pest populations. Did you know that you can use Nasturtium as a distraction to protect your brassica crops, like broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage? Apparently White Cabbage Moth will preference Nasturtium over the Brassicas and I am pleased to say that my experience has suggested this is true. I just plant more Nasturtiums than I need and live with losing some. Aphids LOVE Nasturtiums, but so do their predators and I rarely see aphids near my crops these days. (Knock on wood) Some people swear by planting them near fruit trees and I have recently read that they can be companion planted with cucurbits like pumpkin and cucumber to repel pests that attack this group of vines. Of course they also attract a wide range of pollinators which is helpful in any part of the kitchen garden. There’s also a general consensus that this hardy plant is incredibly resilient in relation to pests and diseases and my gardening experience supports this assertion.
All that really leaves is growing conditions. Nasturtiums are hardy and will cope with many soils and conditions. They do need a sunny position. Our harsh sun in Queensland means that mine grow well in part shade, but I imagine they would need full sun in more temperate climates. They prefer a well-drained soil and in warm climates can be planted throughout Spring, Summer and Autumn. In cooler climates they need to be sown in Spring. They are supposedly a short term annual, but some of mine have prospered through two growing seasons before being replaced by their selfseeding habit. I grow the readily available cascading varieties, but they also come in bushes and climbing vines. They come in lots of colours. I only have orange at the moment because my yellow ones have been eaten. My personal favourite is the red variety!
So there it is! Phew! What an essay! Wishing you a productive and cheerful garden, janegrowsgardenrooms
PS Would you like to read about any plants or gardening projects in particular? Let me know in the comments or via one of the social media accounts listed on the contacts page!