March 2, 2004 > Nasturtiums
by Pat Kite
Lemons, limes and oranges are often praised for rescuing early sailors from the dreaded killing pains of scurvy, a disorder due to lack of vitamin C. But few know to applaud the little nasturtium, which also helped keep sailors and settlers healthy. Nasturtiums contain quite a bit of vitamin C. By the 1600s, both flowers and leaves were used in salads. The green seedpods were pickled in wine or vinegar and added to meals. If you're wondering how Nasturtium got its name: It comes from the Latin phrase for "twisted nose." If you try a fresh leaf, you'll find it somewhat peppery.
Just about anybody, even little children, can successfully grow Nasturtiums. The seeds are big and easy to handle, sprouting tends to be prompt and reliable, bugs seldom demolish all the seedlings, adult plants are hardy, and you get freebie new ones every year. So what else do you need to know?
There are two basic kinds of Nasturtiums: compact and vining. The compact ones get to about 6 to 10-inches high. Flowers, about 2-inches wide, come in a palette of colors, including maroon, orange, yellow, gold and cherry red. Both single and double-flowered forms are available. The seed packets picture what the flowers will look like.
Seeds for the vining types can be a little harder to find in generic garden shops, check out specific garden centers and catalogues. The vines only get to 6-feet, and, like the compacts, are annuals. This means they grow for a while, then retreat. But while they're growing, the vines will cheerfully cover stumps, rocks, short fences, or even the ground if left to lie down.
Care is easy if you give Nasturtiums full sun or very light shade, and remember to water more-or-less regularly. Soil can be average or even somewhat poor. Planting time depends on how hot your neighborhood gets. Spring is the usual time. Whatever you do, don't put Nasturtiums in the shade. In shade, you will get oodles of bright green rounded leaves and a dearth of bright flowers. The same thing happens if you fertilize, so you can skip that extra effort.
At the close of a Nasturtium-growing season, about four months, plants begin to fade. Pull out the compact variety and cut vines. Let the large seeds drop to the ground, where many will eventually sprout. I put in Nasturtiums 10 years ago, and have never had to buy new seeds. A note: the freebies, after a while, tend to select their own colors.
In the Victorian Language of Flowers, Nasturtiums signify Patriotism. One explanation is the flowers are shaped like helmets, and the leaves like shields.