Nasturtiums

Short version:

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.

Vertical gardening

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.

They self-seed

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.

Seed pods

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!

As a parting image – this is a photo taken 27th August. Seedlings are still appearing and the current plants are still going strong. This is really with no effort at all on my part. I don’t sow or transplant. All I do is play with the leaves, snack on the flowers, allow my little one to steal all the nectar, harvest leaves and pick off leaves with aphids as I’m harvesting (wash the aphids down the sink and eat the leaves) and experiment with different ways of cooking/preparing them.

Things kids can do with flowers

Short version:

Pick them, eat them, press them and bathe in them. It’s safer to do all these things with edible flowers to avoid poisoning or dermatitis. Beware of even the ubiquitous daffodils!

Pick them

The harder thing is stopping my 3 year old from picking them. We’ve made it a blanket rule that she can’t pick flowers beyond our garden without checking with me first. This is both out of common courtesy and for safety. Please be warned that there are many common flowers that are poisonous or have noxious chemicals. Bluebells, snowdrops, hyacinths, crocus and daffodils are flowers often seen in gardens, but they all contain toxins. When we first moved into our house my little one took a shine to the daffodils. I didn’t think anything of letting her pick and play with them – like I did as a child in my own parents’ garden. She developed a rash where she had rubbed it on her skin. After a bit of research I found that daffodils have calcium oxalate crystals in their sap which irritate the skin – something well known to daffodil pickers and florists. We grow all flowers that are safe to touch. The next challenge was to teach her which of the flowers would turn into fruit and was therefore off limits.

We pretty much continually have a glass on the kitchen table that has the kid’s latest pickings. It’s good for her to get to know the local flora and she likes the colours and smells and textures. She has also learnt to exercise caution as even edible flowers, like borage and roses, can have defence mechanisms like little prickles and thorns.

Eat them!

It took a while to ensure that she only picks the safe things to graze on. Whilst we grow mostly edibles (we have grown sweet peas on the roof out of her reach and we also grow star jasmine – both for the fragrance) it’s worth nothing that edibles like tomatoes and potatoes have poisonous leaves, passiflora caerulea does have edible fruit, but the leaves, flowers and unripe fruit are poisonous, and asparagus has poisonous berries.

She loves the flowers from borage, winter purslane, mint, dill and basil, though to be honest these last 2 barely make it to flower as she also loves eating the leaves. With nasturtiums she will pinch off the nectar containing cone to suck. She’s not keen on the cornflowers, calendula, watercress, coriander or brassica flowers when they grow. She loves the artichokes and chard flowers when cooked. This is the first year that we’re trying to grow violets, red clover, daisies, chamomile and bellflower in the lawn. I’ll have to let you know how they fare and how tasty they are (or aren’t).

In addition to education on what is edible, it’s important that they learn that flowers may sometimes be covered in pesticides so they cannot go around eating flowers outside your own home environment.

It sounds like the risk isn’t worth it but any adult who forages had to start learning it at some point. I believe it’s important for our kids (and everyone) to make the connection between what they eat and how it’s produced. With our little one sometimes she eats enough borage and winter purslane flowers (and leaves) that I don’t have to worry about her vegetable intake.

Press them

This was something we did as kids. Life is very different these days. Our kids are initiated into technology so early. I won’t lie (please don’t judge me), my one was already tapping away on my phone by her 3rd birthday. So, it’s nice to do activities with her that I did during my own childhood. You just need to arrange them between pieces of paper (something that is a little absorbent is best), enclose that in a heavy book, stack more books on top and leave for about 2 weeks.

Bathe in them

My little one has eczema that stems from allergies. This means a bath every night in plain old water with a soap substitute but sometimes to make it interesting we’ll throw in something from the garden. There are plenty of things that look and/or smell good. Here’s where you must do a bit of research and exercise caution (see details about daffodils above). Generally, we follow the rule, if you can eat it, you can probably bathe in it and don’t go overboard. If unsure put a bloom or two in for the first bath. Excess may cause issues (like a bath with half of my mint patch would certainly cause eye irritation, if not skin irritation) and besides I’d like to keep some of my flowers in the garden.

Bee Happy

So as a last thing, it’s quite nice for our little one to get to know about bees, how amazing they are and how much we rely on them for pollination. She’s learnt not to harm them or be scared of them and she’s rather fond of them.