Spice up your garden and your cooking with these jewel-toned beauties.
"Nasturtium is an herb which for me has three uses: it lights sober herb beds with its bright colors of orange and yellow; all summer it decorates salads with leaves and gay flowers; and in the autumn it provides green seeds for pickling. Does it not earn for itself a place in an herb garden?"
—Annie Burnham Carter, In an Herb Garden (Rutgers University Press, 1947)
Bright, versatile and easy to grow, nasturtiums are among my very favorite garden flowers. I love even their name: a combination of the Latin nasus for "nose" and tortus for "twisted," describing the way our noses twist or wrinkle when we inhale their spicy scent. Some sources say their botanical family name Tropaeolaceae comes from tropaion, the Greek word for "trophy," due to the plant’s shield-like leaves and helmet-shaped blooms. But because of their exuberant nature, I affectionately refer to these garden rowdies as "nasties."
Nasturtiums effortlessly fill garden space with mounds of fun foliage even before their showy bloom colors appear. The unusual leaves are rounded with wavy edges, and their stems attach to them from the bottom, directly in the center. Leaves range in color from gray-green to bright green, blue-green and variegated, with each bearing a pretty, starlike pattern of veins. The spurred, trumpet-shaped flowers are available in a palette of bright colors—from tropical hues, such as creamy yellow, peach and coral, to primary yellow and red to vivid orange, gold and even mahogany.
No wonder Monet cultivated nasturtiums liberally throughout the gardens at Giverny, where he captured their mounding masses of jewel-colored blooms in many of his famous paintings. (See "Monet’s Garden of Living Color.") And Thomas Jefferson, who planted nasturtiums in his garden every year, lamented when he couldn’t get enough seed to fill a 30-by-57-foot bed with them!
We nasturtium lovers owe our gratitude to the Spanish conquistadores for first bringing the fiery-colored Tropaeolum majus from its native South America to Europe more than 500 years ago. In the garden, this 8- to 10-foot vine requires a supporting fence or trellis. The more commonly grown garden cultivars are shorter in stature (8 to 20 inches tall) and loosely mounded in form. I like to plant them along the edge of a border, at the top of a wall or in a pot or hanging basket where their sprawling stems can spill gracefully over the edges.
Nasturtiums start easily from seed in average soil and full sun. Here in Zone 7, I sow them directly into the garden in late March or early April, about the same time that I plant early greens. I like the ritual—going about the kitchen garden with my seed packs and poking the fat, bumpy-round seeds into the cold earth along the edges of the bed. For masses of color, I plant the seeds about 8 to 12 inches apart.
When the plants are up, keep them well watered. But don’t feed them too much nitrogen or you’ll get massive leaf growth with few blooms.
Harvest the edible leaves regularly to keep the plants bushy. Remove and discard the stems, then rinse the leaves and use them like lettuce. When harvesting flowers, pick them with long stems, and keep your bouquet in a glass of water until you are ready to prepare the blossoms. When you’re ready, rinse the blooms gently and shake or pat them dry. Remove the stem and use the whole bloom, or gently tear it into separate petals.
Both the fresh foliage and flowers of nasturtium add a pleasant hint of heat and pungency to many summer dishes. The leaves, which are high in vitamin C, add a peppery cress-like flavor to salads, sandwiches and green sauces. (Click here for Salsa Verde with Nasturtiums recipe.) When shredded, they make a flavorful accent for pasta, rice, couscous or chicken salad. Or chop and sprinkle them on pizza.
The blossoms have the same peppery quality as the leaves, but are milder, with a hint of a floral scent. The whole blooms make beautiful holders for cold salads—egg, chicken and vegetable—as well as cheese spreads. (Click here for Nasturtiums Filled with Guacamole recipe.) Because they are a bit fragile when filled, I like to place the filled flowers on vegetable or bread slices so they can be picked up more easily. Whole flowers also can be used in salads or as garnishes. Or use them to make a lovely, colored vinegar. (Click here for Nasturtium Vinegar recipe.)
You can cut both the flowers and leaves into chiffonade (thin ribbons) to blend with butter, or toss them with egg salad, noodles, vegetables or fish. The unopened buds, marinated in wine or vinegar, make an unusual refrigerator pickle. Even the seeds can be harvested and used; when pickled, they make a suitable substitute for capers.
Here are three of my favorite ways to use nasturtiums.
Makes about 20 appetizers
Piquant nasturtium blossoms are a wonderful foil for guacamole, and the jicama provides a nice, crunchy base. If you don’t have jicama, Jerusalem artichokes or cucumber slices are a good substitute. This recipe is excerpted from my book Flowers in the Kitchen (Interweave Press, 1991).
Makes about 2½ cups
This sauce goes well with any vegetable whether grilled, steamed, oven-roasted or served as crudité; it also is good with pasta or simply prepared meat, chicken or fish. Vary the herbs, using what you have on hand or what is in season. (For example, replace some of the parsley with basil, or use tarragon or dill instead of marjoram.) You also can substitute watercress or arugula for the nasturtium leaves.
Makes 1 pint
Nasturtiums make a pretty, peppery-flavored vinegar. Choose bright blooms to make the most colorful vinegars. Although "nasties" can stand on their own in vinegar, these complementary herbs can be added: basil, chile peppers, chives, garlic, lemon herbs and/or marjoram.
— Contributing editor Susan Belsinger frequently writes and lectures about herbs. She lives in Brookville, Maryland.