In 2017 we spent a month in southeast Australia. One weekend, we drove from Melbourne south to the Mornington Peninsula, home to historic Heronswood Gardens. The grounds are world-famous, for its Fork to Fork restaurant, and for its status as the first public garden in Australia to be certified organic.
Heronswood is also home to the The Diggers Club, Australia’s largest gardening club. Their magazine alone is worth the cost of membership, even if you live half a globe away in Kodiak, Alaska.
PLEASE EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP
After touring the grounds, I entered the double doors into the garden shop. In no time I discovered their amazing collection of heirloom seeds. I visually plowed through the display racks and picked up a packet of what looked like red Alaska nasturtiums. Candy apple red. I bought three packets. I reasoned that by stashing one in different places in my luggage, I stood a better chance of fooling TSA.
I love nasturtiums. The very name makes me smile: The genus, Tropaeolum, commonly called nasturtium, literally means “nose-twister” or “nose-tweaker.”
Nasturtiums have strikingly colorful blossoms and leaves that resemble lily pads. All parts are edible, adding a peppery-watercress zip to salads and sandwiches.
HOW TO GROW
To grow nasturtiums successfully (and keep them happy all summer), you need a touch of finesse mixed with “benign neglect.”
To explain, nasturtiums are easy to grow from seed. But if you want full, lush clumps of nasturtiums, avoid fertilizing them or giving them too much attention. They like their space though, which means they appreciate uncrowded access to soil, air and water.
So when you plant nasturtiums, whether in a raised bed, or hanging basket, rewarding them with rich soil means you’ll end up with giant leaves but not much in the way of flowers.
LEARNING FROM MISTAKES
When it comes to raising nasturtiums, I’ve made my share of mistakes. For example, location is important. Protected plants produce thick, green leaves and plentiful flowers while plants left to struggle against wind and rain, remain terribly stunted. And plants can develop root rot, usually in containers that don’t drain well. Symptoms: Leaves will fade to a sickly yellow.
That said, nasturtiums are problem-solvers for gardeners. “They fill holes and sparse pots with brilliant blossoms and variegated greens,” says local gardener Heather Johnson. “They hold up well late into the season and look good when other plants are weary and done.
“My favorites,” she adds, “are the trailing varieties that spill out of the rock garden and reach for the passerby.”
A BIT OF FLORAL HISTORY
Speaking of trailing plants, for centuries, trailing nasturtiums were planted to cascade down stone walls. They became especially popular after being displayed in the palace flowerbeds of French king Louis XIV.
Nasturtiums are one of the few edible flowers with leaves that are also munchable. At different times in their history, nasturtiums have been considered a vegetable, an herb, a flower, a fruit, garden accents and a backdrop to famous paintings.
“Monet planted all colors of nasturtiums in his gardens, among the pansies and iris especially,” says local gardener and history buff Deborah Carver. “He created that ‘impressionistic’ feeling we recognize in his paintings. The gardeners still use this technique at the Giverny gardens.”
Deb appreciates nasturtiums not only for their aesthetic value, but for their flavor which has been described as initially sweet and followed by a terrific peppery punch. “The bottom part of the flower is the tastiest,” says Deb, “sweet and like a nectar. The petals are spicy. Yum!”
Nasturtium flowers have many uses: You can brighten salads, wraps, butter, desserts, or sandwiches. And add a touch of nutrition at the same time. Nasturtiums contain about 130 mg of vitamin C per 100 grams, about the same as parsley.
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE
Nasturtium’s green, unripe seed pods can be harvested and dropped into spiced vinegar to produce a condiment and garnish, sometimes used in place of capers.
There’s a lot of summer left to enjoy, and that includes discovering the delights provided by nasturtiums. Here’s one you might not be aware of: In spite of their long tongues, bumblebees and other pollinators find it difficult to access nectar in the deep, tuba-shaped flower. So, they enter via the “back door,” biting holes in the long “spurs” and drinking the nectar.
Sounds sweet. Like local chocolatier Gayla Pedersen’s idea for a dessert. “I love to eat the flowers straight off the plant. Small ones in sandwiches and on salads. I’m going try coating their flowers chocolate.”
Do you think I should recommend she use candy apple red ones? Stay tuned.
Have a great week, and if you have a garden question, pop me an email to: email@example.com.