Nasturtium Gems

Spice up your garden and your cooking with these jewel-toned beauties.

| August/September 2007

  • Piquant nasturtium blossoms are a wonderful foil for guacamole. Placing the blossoms on top of a slice of bread or vegetable makes the fragile flowers easier to handle.
    Joe Coca
  • Nasturtiums effortlessly fill garden space with mounds of foliage even before their showy bloom colors appear.
    Rob Cardillo

"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!

Garden Groundwork

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.

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