The nasturtium (occasionally nasturtian, or, if you are an A.A. Milne fan, mastershalum) is one of those plants which it is quite easy to overlook for their ubiquitous familiarity. Simple to grow (and to regrow if you save the seeds), bulking up rapidly, with complex, brightly coloured, endlessly repeating flowers, and leaves with decorative veining and the delightful ability to capture pearls of rainwater in their slightly indented centres, what’s not to like?
In fact, I started growing them only a few years ago, put off for ages, I think, by the ones in my grandmother’s garden in my childhood. These, a particularly virulent orange, were afflicted year after year not only with blackfly, which clustered on the backs of the leaves where they joined the stem and then proliferated both sideways and downwards, but also with the caterpillars of cabbage white butterflies (there being no other brassicas in the garden).
The English nomenclature is odd: Nasturtium officinale is not nasturtium but watercress (another brassica), and it is thought that the similarity of the taste of the leaves gave rise to the cross-naming – an early name was ‘Indian cress’, since it came from the (Spanish) Indies, i.e. South America. (And ‘nasturtium’ itself is Latin for ‘nose-twister’, ‘nasi-tortium’, according to the Elder Pliny, presumably because of the pungent smell – though clearly he couldn’t have meant this new-world plant.)
The plant was first introduced to Europe by the Spanish botanist and physician Nicolás Bautista Monardes (1493–1588), who was also a great enthusiast and proponent of the healing properties of tobacco (as well as being the eponym of Monarda).
His best-known work is Primera y Segunda y Tercera partes de la Historia medicinal de las cosas que se traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales, que sirven en Medicina, first published in 1565. Further enlarged editions came out in 1569 and 1574.
Clusius translated an abridged version into Latin, as De simplicibus medicamentis ex occidentali India delatis quorum in medicina usus est, in 1574, and produced further editions up until 1605.
Slightly later, in 1577 it was translated into English (under the title Joyfull news out of the newe found worlde, wherein is declared the rare and singular vertues of diuerse and sundrie hearbes, trees, oyles, plantes, and stones, with their applications, as well for phisicke as chirurgerie) by John Frampton, a merchant who was arrested in 1559 by the Spanish Inquisition and kept prisoner for three years. On his release, with his property confiscated, he return home, and spent a lot of time unsuccessfully trying to recompense his losses from the confiscated property of Spaniards in England, but also took up translating from the Spanish, mostly of works on travel (including a version of Marco Polo).
In his 1597 Herball (much of the content of which came from Rembert Dodoens’ Cruydeboeck, of which he used Dodoens’ own 1583 Latin translation), John Gerard notes that he had received seed of the plant from his ‘loving friend John [Jean] Robin’ in Paris. Gerard has no note of its medicinal uses or virtues, but is content to call it a cress, the generic term for salad greens. (Henry Lyte (1529–1607), who translated Dodoens into English in 1578, and was a distant relative of John Aubrey), remarks: ‘Cresses are commonly sowen in all gardens.’)
In 1753, Linnaeus named the genus Tropaeolum (which somebody has written below the engraving in the copy of Gerard above), because the leaves and flowers reminded him of a Greek ‘tropaion’, a memorial raised on a battlefield, hung with shields (the leaves) and bloodstained helmets (the flowers). The familiar garden nasturtium is Tropaeolum majus, but there are other species which can be grown in the UK, though none of them are hardy. T. tricolor (three-coloured Indian cress) is perennial in its native Chile, but needs to be kept under glass. Apart from the spur at the back of the flower, it doesn’t look very much like T. majus.
T. tuberosum, or mashua, is cultivated in Peru and Bolivia for its edible tubers, and is apparently rarely found in the wild. The leaves are not unlike those of T. majus, but rather attractively indented.
Also with indented leaves and also from Peru is T. peregrinum, the canary creeper, so named for its pale yellow flowers, while T. azureum, from Chile, is (unsurprisingly) a purplish blue. It flowers in spring and goes dormant in summer and, like the others, needs winter protection. The other one often found in Europe is T. speciosum, the flame flower or flame nasturtium, with completely indented leaves and bright red flowers.
Last year, I kept two flourishing T. majus plants to over-winter in my covered A-frame, but I have to confess that it wasn’t really worth it – the existing leaves turned yellow but didn’t drop off, and almost no new flowers appeared. This of course is probably down to my lack of skill, but when growing them as annuals is the easiest thing imaginable (and indeed I quite often get seedlings from the soil below the plants), why bother?
Controlled hybridisation by plant breeders has led to the availability of hundreds of varieties, many of which are sold as mixes – ‘Jewel Mix’, ‘Gold Collection’, ‘Night and Day’, etc. (something I find infuriating in all annuals and bulbs – I want to choose my own colours, thank you!).
The colours of the flowers range from the palest yellow to the deepest, almost-red orange, and the leaf colour also varies, from pale to dark green, via an almost blue shade. The hybrid ‘Alaska’ has variegated leaves.
This year, I favoured ‘Milkmaid’ and ‘Princess of India’, to contrast with each other, but was rather let down by the seed provider, as only half the expected number of ‘Princess’ seeds was in the packet, so ‘Milkmaid’ is reigning supreme. And so far, no blackfly or caterpillars …
What I haven’t yet done is actually eat any – or not consciously, anyway. The trend for eating flowers has come back in a big way – one restaurant I visit occasionally has a couple of viola flowers on every dessert it serves at the moment. But google ‘nasturtium recipes’ and you will be amazed (unless you are a foodie, of course). Apart from consuming the flowers and leaves, you can also pickle the seeds, which, it is said, taste like capers – not much use to me as, in my opinion, the caper is the only thing which is ever wrong with Italian food. I’ll stick to saving the seeds to plant next year…