University of Vermont
Department of Plant and Soil Science

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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.

Nasturtiums also are planted by many as a companion plant in the vegetable garden to ward off pests, and look attractive at the same time.  Interplant nasturtiums with member of the cabbage family (cabbage, kale, cauliflower and similar) to deer cabbage caterpillars and whiteflies. Interplant with cucumbers, too, for perhaps fewer whiteflies and cucumber beetles.  Grown with runner beans, nasturtiums help keep aphids off the bean plants.  If you have problems with aphids and whiteflies on tomatoes and potatoes, interplant nasturtiums. And interplant with squash to deter squash beetles and borers.  In addition to deterring unwanted insects, they are useful in attracting beneficial predatory insects to your garden.

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