With large attractive blooms in warm colours, these rampant self-seeders can be bushy or trailing/climbing depending on the variety. The flowers, leaves and seed pods are edible and when raw have a peppery taste similar to raw watercress. Its pungency is dampened by cooking.
Eating the flowers
I’m surprised that people still visit me when I often chase guests with things I’ve just pulled from my garden, demanding that they eat it. Proffered nasturtiums meet the most resistance. People often don’t believe that something that pretty and boldly coloured is edible. They range from red, through shades of orange and yellow, to a pale peachy colour (which I sadly don’t have). The trumpet shaped blooms are around the size of a ping pong ball and the petals are soft and velvety.
I often warn people that they do taste rather peppery. Children are attracted to the appearance, but often put off by the taste. It doesn’t sound like I’m selling it well but around the peppery taste there is this unusual sweetness. We sometimes eat a couple in the garden as an interesting snack. Though, I’m afraid, we find it unpalatable to eat a large quantity of raw flowers, so they are often consigned to being a garnish or torn and sprinkled liberally in salads.
I’ve discovered that my 4 year old is a sly one and rather than eat the flowers she goes straight for the nectar.
This ‘cone’ at the back of the flower is where the nectar is stored and if you nip off this tiny bit to eat then it is very sweet with only that slight hint of pepper.
Bee friendly flowers
This brings me to the next plus point. On top of being attractive and edible, they’re great for bees and other pollinators. Nasturtiums are a good source of pollen and nectar. The shape of the flower also provides a little landing pad for the bees too. They also have a decently long flowering season – from May to September. Even with my little monkey pinching out the nectar from as many flowers as she can, there is always plenty for the bees.
It’s also fortuitous that I grow the trailing/climbing variety in my garden. Munchkin can only really reach the lower third of the plants. The bushy varieties make a stunning display in a plant border but in my small enclosed garden the climbing ones have a small footprint whilst providing a large amount of eating. Where they haven’t climbed up the supports, they trail along the ground and make good ground cover to crowd out the weeds around the base of the perennials.
I sowed nasturtiums in 2017. They can be sown indoors, in individual pots, just before the last frost. Individual toilet roll pots are best because the stems are easily snapped. For ease sow in situ in from April onwards. I planted the variety ‘Gleam’ as they are a climbing variety and an ‘African Jewel’ mix, another climbing variety which also has variegated leaves for something cool to look at. Since then they’ve come back every year without any intervention from me. One of the great things about edible self-seeders like these is that any unwanted seedlings can just be pulled and eaten.
Great for kids
The seeds are nice and large, so they’re easy for kids to handle. They germinate quickly so little ones don’t have to wait so long. The leaves are also hydrophobic, as in, they repel water. They make a fascinating plant to play with and then of course they’re pretty to look at and edible later.
If you grow nasturtiums then try this game: Put a large drop of water on the leaf, try and throw the drop in the air and catch it again in the leaf.
Eating the leaves
So, both flowers and leaves are edible, raw. They can be added to salads, but at our table I wouldn’t dare to add much beyond a few shredded leaves. Both the husband and the infant would have a tantrum. It’s the same with raw watercress. Blanched watercress, however, pleases the husband but not the child.
A light stir frying of the nasturtium leaves takes away much of the pepperiness and leaves a pleasant taste that I’ve not found anywhere else. Again, the husband will accept this but not the child. She will, however, eat nasturtium leaf crisps. You can make them like kale crisps. Spray lightly with oil and oven bake in single layers for a few minutes on a medium heat. Alternatively, a hot, non-stick frying pan with oil will crisp up leaves very quickly but the leaves must be done a few at a time in a single layer. You can imagine I don’t do this often as it’s a bit too much work for someone who wants to eat out of the garden lazily and easily. Also, I suspect all the oil and heat makes it all much less nutritious and healthy.
Easy to grow
In addition to the happy self-seeding, nasturtiums grow well in poor soil. This means that they will grow readily in soil that is not fertile enough to grow vegetables. This doesn’t mean that you need to deliberately seek out rubbish soil. If the soil is fertile you will just get more leaves, which isn’t a problem as you can eat them.
As a companion
They are very attractive to aphids and cabbage white. This may sound like a bad thing as you don’t want to attract either to your garden really, but what they do is they ‘trap’ the pests and they feed on the nasturtiums rather than on your other crop buds or brassicas. The best thing is that nasturtium is so prolific that the plant doesn’t seem to be affected much by the aphids. The caterpillars can eat a good chunk of plant but it’s really easy just to pick all the leaves affected by pests and bin them all. If you’re not too squeamish you can take the leaves with the aphids and soak them in very salty water (literally a large bowl filled with water and about 2 tablespoons of salt) for 10 mins. It’s quite satisfying to see the water crowded with aphids. These are now pests no longer in your garden and you can still rinse the leaves and eat them. I’m afraid I’m a bit too squeamish to do this with the caterpillars.
Lastly the seed pods are, apparently, a substitute for capers. I’m afraid I’ve never done anything with them. Maybe one day when I’m feeling more adventurous. I let you know when I get there!