Not only pretty to look at, these annuals can be used as a companion crop, an edible, part of herbal medicine and a source of play for a child's imagination.
When one thinks of their grandmother's garden or a cottage garden, Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus), most likely are at the top of the list. This self-sowing annual flower germinates easily, usually within 10 - 14 days. Some people like to soak the seeds overnight to speed things up a bit.
Being the seeds are fairly large, these are perfect for the little hands of children to handle. Just press the seeds down into the warm soil about 1/2" deep and a foot apart. Children will be delighted when the little umbrella shaped leaves emerge since they are so easy to recognize.
Though planted after the threat of frost is past in the spring, these flowers are cool season annuals and wait till late summer to really put on their show. They like full sun and will grow in partial sun, but the result will be more lush foliage than flowers. Drought resistant, these plants need well-drained soil and actually thrive on neglect.
Once established, they'll reseed themselves, so there really isn't any need to collect the seeds and store for the winter unless you want to plant them elsewhere in a different spot.
Nasturtiums come in two forms: compact (dwarf) and trailing. The compact variety is low and stays bushy at around 12" tall. This type is good in spots where you want a lot of dense growth and color such as in borders, places where you need the plants to behave and not spread out onto the walkways. The trailing types are great for areas you want a tumbling effect such as in hanging baskets or down rocks or walls. If simply planted without caring where they go, nasturtiums will meander around other plants and by early fall they will fill in any bare spots.
There are climbing varieties such as "Canary Creeper" or "Jewel of Africa". These have runners that climb six to eight feet, good for a trellis.
Though the stems break off easily, don't think these are delicate plants. They are actually very durable and even when our dogs bumble right through them, they always bounce right back. The leaves look like little water lily pads, flat and round with the stem attached to the center and the vein radiating out from there. Some think of the leaves as parasols held up by their stems but the actual name is called peltate or shield shaped leaves.
The traditional colors are a bright yellow and orange, but there are varieties available now such as "Empress of India", which have brilliant red blooms, and the "Whirlybird", which can be described as mixed colors of soft salmon, tangerine as well as a deep cherry rose. Then there are the "Peach Melba" which are the color of cut peaches. Try "Alaska" for varigated leaves.
The blooms have spurs at the back, sort of like the Columbine, which are nectar tubes and a draw for hummingbirds.
Before the age of pesticides gardeners utilized companion planting to deter pests. With the awareness of just how damaging insect killing sprays are to our pollinators, organic gardening is thankfully making a comeback. Plant nasturtium amidst your vegetable plants to deter slugs. Aphids love nasturtiums, therefore they make a good "catch crop" for your other plants. Years ago, nasturtiums were often seen among those large truck patches of potatoes.
Nasturtiums originated in South America and brought back to Spain in the 1500's. Once introduced to European gardens, their popularity quickly took off. Monet had them planted in his pathway borders. Thomas Jefferson loved them and they are now seen in American historical gardens.
The actual meaning of the word nasturtium is "nose-tweaker". Victorian ladies used to include the flowers and leaves in their tussie mussies to help alleviate bad smells.
The latin, Tropaeolum, is a reference to the battle victory trophies which the Romans hung on poles, called tropaeum. The flowers resemble hemets and the leaves resemble shields.
Medicinally, the leaves were used in teas to treat respiratory conditions and bladder infections. High in vitamin C, nasturtiums are a natural antibiotic. Minor cuts could be treated topically by using the leaves as a poultice.
In the kitchen, the flowers, leaves and seeds can all be utilized.
During WWII, the dried seeds were ground and used as a substitute for black pepper.
The chopped leaves add a zesty zing to mayonnaise, vinaigrettes, cheese spreads and dips.
That peppery spicy taste gets hotter as the summer progresses.
Add the flowers to salads for a beautiful visual effect and spicy flavor.
Make pretty tea sandwiches with both the leaves and the flowers.
Children love stuffing the blossoms with egg, chicken or tuna salad or cream cheese mixtures. Guacamole is another great option as a filler. Used as appetizers, these stuffed flowers are a hit with summer parties.
Put the flowers up in vinegars. Place some blossoms in a decorative bottle and cover with hot (not boiling) white wine vinegar. Use about five blossoms per cup of vinegar. Strain when ready to use or strain and add fresh blossoms to give as gifts.