Nasturtium, Indian cress or garden nasturtiums are beautiful flowers in showy colors that brighten up the landscape. They grow in any type of soil, require minimal care and maintenance, and resist most pests and disease. Besides producing colorful blooms, the entire plant is edible and rich in vitamins. The advantages and benefits of this flower outweigh any disadvantages, making it an essential garden plant.
Nasturtium belongs to the genus Tropaeolum that includes over 80 species of dwarf, bushy and climbing annual and perennial flowering plants. All species have light green, kidney-shaped or rounded leaves with margins through the center. Each leaf is 2 ½ inches wide. Although flowers are double or semi-double varieties, each 1 ½-to 2-inch-wide flower features five petals in a variety of colors, including yellow, orange, scarlet, pink and crimson. All five sepals unite to form a cup-like calyx with one modified into a 1-inch long spur that produces nectar preferred by hummingbirds and bees.
Discovered in the jungles of Mexico and Peru in the 16th century, these cheerful flowers are bright, edible and form suitable companion plants. They do well when planted under fruit trees or next to cucumbers, tomatoes, cabbage and radishes, and help to deter whiteflies, aphids, cucumber beetles, caterpillars, squash bugs and other pests.
All parts of the flower are edible, and are eaten raw, slightly cooked or stir fried. Nasturtium has a slightly peppery taste, similar to watercress.
The seeds are large and easily held by tiny fingers, making them suitable for children to plant.
Nasturtiums are primarily used for ornamental planting. The bushy or dwarf varieties add a kaleidoscope of colors to annual borders and flower beds. Trailing varieties are suitable for hanging baskets, on a sandy slope, or a trellis or low fence. Many gardeners grow these ornamental flowers in vegetable or salad gardens.
Use this peppery, zesty-tasting flower to replace mustard in sandwiches. The flowers and leaves are used as salad. In the Andean Highlands it is primarily cultivated for tubers that are a source of food. Use the petals to garnish dishes or crush them and mix with butter for a colorful effect.
Nasturtium seedpods are pickled and used as condiments with savory dishes. Unripe seeds substitute capers because of the similar texture and taste. The best time to gather the seeds is immediately after the blossoms fall off.
The health benefits of nasturtium are many. When combined with water, the glycoside in the flower acts as an antibiotic that cures minor ailments. The flower is rich in vitamins B1, B2, B3 and C and contains manganese, iron, phosphorus and calcium. It is also used as an expectorant, anti-fungal and antiseptic.
Plant nasturtium seeds in well-drained soils with full sun to partial shade. Amending the soil with organic matter beforehand produces more foliage and fewer flowers. Water the plant weekly and pick flowers to encourage more blooms.