I plant nasturtiums for their lovely edible leaves. No, I plant them for their beautiful blossoms. No, wait, I plant them to attract aphids … because they are easy to grow … because they offer a choice of plain or variegated leaves and multiple flower colors – not my favorite purples and blues – but many other crisp warm colors. No, I plant them because they grow equally well in garden soil and containers.
Actually, I grow nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) – also known as Indian cress – for all these reasons. Since potting up a couple in large clay pots this spring, I’ve had nasturtium – Alaska mix (photo at right) and Moonlight – to brighten whatever corner, edge, wall, or porch I choose. Alaska Mix flower in a range of warm yellows, oranges, deep red, and peachy tones – I could do without the orange but tolerate these blossoms when grouped with the other colors – but the creamy yellow and green variegated foliage is the real reason I like Alaska mix. It provides fresh clean interest no matter the stage of growth and on really hot days the blossoms fit right in with the sweltering atmosphere.
Moonlight nasturtiums – blooming at left with bean blossoms – are my favorites for flower color. Their pale yellow blooms look wonderful next to every other color in the garden. They grow large tasty leaves that give salads a fresh-picked peppery flair, and Moonlight sends out long tendrils to intertwine the blossoms and leaves with neighboring plants. Given the right support, Moonlight will also climb.
The downside – at least some may consider it so – is aphids affinity for nasturtiums. Not sure how or why, but black aphids love, love, love nasturtiums. I use this to the advantage of neighboring plants – nasturtiums attract aphids away from their neighbors. This season I planted aphids in the same pots as a couple of extra eggplant seedlings. I thought the purple stems and fruit, and the large dark green eggplant leaves would be nicely offset by Moonlight’s pale yellow flowers. What I forgot at the time is how well nasturtium draw in aphids. In one pot, aphids lit early. I resisted temptation to yank or spray – with organic Safer – the infested plants. Almost immediately ants came in for the sweet, sticky nectar released by the stem- and leaf-sucking aphids. Still I resisted pulling the increasingly sad looking nasturtiums, even when the stems were nearly black with aphids. Then, during my early morning stroll, I noticed markedly fewer aphids. Closer inspection revealed ladybugs. I can’t say they were particularly fat ladybugs – don’t really know how to determine if a ladybug is fat – but I can’t help but see a correlation between fewer aphids and the sudden arrival of ladybugs. Had I pulled and destroyed the infested nasturtiums who knows what other garden might have benefitted by these ladybug visits. Once the infested nasturtiums finally succumbed to the aphid attack, I pulled the plants and burned them.
My other nasturtium plantings are, as yet, untouched by aphids, as are other plants in the gardens. This happens year and year again. One or two nasturtium plants attract aphids, but with nasturtiums present aphids generally steer clear of other plants.
Besides serving as a natural aphid foil, nasturtium flowers and leaves are edible – the peppery taste punches up a green salad. One of our sons used to take nasturtium leaves to school in a sandwich bag to pull out and eat as a snack, much to the surprise and angst of his fellow students and teachers. He said they taste best sprinkled with a little hot sauce. Want to create a conversation piece salad for a neighborhood get-together? Add a few nasturtium blossoms to a green salad or as garnish on a potato salad, guacamole, or other salad or dip, then watch who – if anyone – eats the flowers. Hint: strike up a conversation with whoever eats the blossoms … good chance they will have some plant knowledge.
Nasturtiums are annual in my zone 6b region. Plant the seeds in early spring – either in thawed ground or in pots. Soak the hard-coated seeds overnight to give them a good boost. Give plants full or nearly full sun – at least 4 to 6 hours and water to maintain soil moisture until seeds sprout and to prevent drooping once plants establish. The often 8 to 12 inch tall plants are good in the front of a border, but they tend to get tired as summer progresses. I prefer planting them in a spot where they can shine in spring and early- to mid-summer and be outshined by neighboring plants if they get badly hit by aphids or just get tired of dealing with summer heat. If they get too leggy just cut them back, they will often regrow into a lovely late-summer specimen.
Nasturtium come in multiple varieties. In addition to Alaska Mix and Moonlight, I’ve planted Empress of India – good for people who like reds, Jewel Mix with flower colors similar to Alaska Mix but solid leaves, Whirlybird Choice Mix which carries blossoms high above the foliage, and Out of Africa also with variegated foliage. I keep returning to Alaska Mix for its leaf variegation/flower combo and Moonlight for its flower color. Still, the dark red/black blossoms of Black Velvet and the color of Peach Melba intrigue me and might find their way on my seed-buying list in the future.
Check out recent shots of the amazing hanging nasturtiums at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum outside of Boston, in Brookline, Massachusetts.
Do you plant nasturtiums? Share your nasturtium story.