NASTURTIUM: A FAVORITE OLD-FASHIONED FLOWER
Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor Emeritus
University of Vermont
Nasturtiums are a trailing annual plant, easy to grow, with flowers in various colors (mainly red, orange or yellow) all summer. They’re great as a groundcover, in large containers, hanging baskets, or trailing out of raised beds and down slopes. The abundant, colorful blooms can be cut for use as an elegant entree garnish or salad decoration. The leaves, which contain a good dose of vitamin C, can be used to add a peppery flavor to fresh salads. It is this flavor, similar to that of cress, from which the common name comes, meaning “nose twister” in Latin.
Perhaps it is the resurgence of interest in growing old-fashioned
flowers that has helped the nasturtium make a comeback in gardens
and seed catalogs. The flowers have a delicate fragrance that many
people will remember from grandma's garden. A couple of more
famous displays are at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in
Boston, plants forced for spring blooms in their courtyard
(www.gardnermuseum.org), and at the artist Claude Monet’s home in
Giverny, France (fondation-monet.com/en).
The scientific name for the nasturtium (Tropaeolum minor)
comes from the Greek word meaning "to twine," which is descriptive
of some of the 50 species in this genus. Nasturtium was first
found growing in Mexico and Peru, where it was used instead of
cress to flavor foods. It was brought to Europe in the 16th
century, where it was considered a symbol of conquest and victory
in battle. This meaning morphed into “patriotism” in the symbolic
Language of Flowers of Victorian times. Victorian women used it in
their practical “tussie mussies” (small bunches of flowers) to
ward off bad smells.
Nasturtiums come in three types: dwarf, semi-trailing, and climbing. Some are heirlooms, dating back 100 years or more. Dwarf types are bushy and compact and include the ‘Alaska Mix’ with variegated leaves and flowers in yellow, red and orange; ‘Empress of India’ with bluish leaves and bright scarlet flowers; ‘Jewel Mix’ with semi-double to double flowers in various colors; ‘Mahogany’ with dark mahogany red flowers; ‘Peach Melba’ with creamy yellow flowers and red inner markings; ‘Phoenix’ with unusual split petals on a color mix of orange, red or yellow; ‘Strawberries and Cream’ with primrose-yellow flowers with red markings; ‘Vesuvius’ with bluish leaves and salmon flowers; and ‘Whirlybird Mix’ with single to semi-double flowers in various colors.
Semi-trailing types reach a length of two to three feet, making
them ideal for hanging baskets. The Gleam series— an All-America
Selections winner in 1935— has semi-double to double flowers in
various colors. It is a good choice for this habit, as is ‘Troika
Red’ or ‘Troika Orange.’ The latter also have variegated leaves.
Gleam has was originally found in a convent garden in Mexico in
the 1920’s and became popular during the Depression, with seeds
selling for five cents each.
The climbing types like ‘Jewel of Africa’ or ‘Tall Trailing Mix’
send out six to eight foot strong runners that climb trellises
like vines. Fragrant, single flowers of this type are bright and
range from yellow and orange to rose and crimson.
Nasturtium is one of the easiest flowers to grow from seed. The
best flowering will be in full sun, but they will tolerate partial
shade (four to six hours of direct sun daily). Seeds can be sown
directly in the garden beginning in late May, or started indoors
to get a good head start on the season. However, as nasturtiums do
not fare well when transplanted, use peat pots and plant these
directly in the soil.
Nasturtiums are not choosy about their soil but, given a choice,
do prefer a light, sandy soil. Don't spoil them with rich, fertile
soil and fertilizers as this will only result in lush foliage and
few blooms. Soil shouldn’t be too wet either, or they may rot.
The large seeds of nasturtiums are easily held by tiny fingers,
making them a good flower for children to help plant. In addition,
the seeds germinate quickly and plants grow rapidly, so children
can see the results of their nurturing soon.
Only a small space is needed to provide a child with his or her
own garden. Even a single foot square container can become a
spring-to-fall garden. In the early spring, sow fast growing seeds
like lettuce and radishes with the nasturtiums. By the time they
are harvested, the nasturtiums will be ready to bloom until fall.
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