Nasturtium Nostalgia

– Posted in: Garden Adventures

Nasturtiums are boisterous annuals that shout with vivid hues of orange, yellow and red. Sophisticated gardeners distain nasturtiums, and I can see why: They tend to take over the spring garden, engulfing prized plants that also are newly in bloom.

I love nasturtiums, although on occasion they annoy me. They’re nostalgia flowers that remind me of my dad’s avocado orchard, where they filled sunny patches. Every spring I picked fistfuls, and there were always plenty.

These are perfect annuals for kids. The seeds are large—pea-sized when green, about half that size when dry. They sprout dependably and come back year after year. Sweet nectar gathers at the base of sepal, like honeysuckle, and the flowers have a peppery flavor. Best of all, the leaves make great toys.

Any dewy morning, the pancake-sized leaves will have at their center iridescent drops of water, silver on the underside because they sit on a cushion of air. Nasturtium leaves have a coating that repels water, so at the slightest touch, droplets slither off. Carefully pick a leaf and you can make the drop roll around. You can even make it jump, then catch it. I’ve entertained every visiting child with this and quite a few adults.

From a design standpoint, nasturtiums are lovely cascading from terraces or pots atop pedestals, and are useful for lining pathways.

Contrast the flowers with a purple or blue gate or wall…

…and with plants that have dark leaves, such as Aeonium ‘Zwartkop’ (photo from Designing with Succulents).

Combine nasturtiums with ivy geraniums and other crayon-hued blooms…

…and let them entwine outdoor furniture.

There are mounding and vining varieties of nasturtiums;  know which you’re planting so it suits the area. Nasturtiums won’t tolerate frost or desert heat and prefer sandy soil. Thanks to their dew-catching ability, they are somewhat drought-tolerant. They will become rampant, but are easy to keep in check. In summer, simply tug on the vines to uproot them. Lots of seeds will have fallen beneath, ensuring a resurgence the following year. Or buy packets of the seeds (look for lovely hybrids) and start afresh the following year.

Debra Lee Baldwin
Award-winning garden photojournalist Debra Lee Baldwin authored the Timber Press bestsellers Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardens, and Succulents Simplified. Debra is a regular contributor to Sunset and other publications, and her own half-acre garden near San Diego has been featured in Better Homes & Gardens. Debra specializes in showing how to use architectural, waterwise and easy-care succulents in a wide variety of appealing and creative applications. www.debraleebaldwin.com.
Debra Lee Baldwin
Debra Lee Baldwin

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Jim/ArtofGardening.org March 16, 2010, 6:33 am

And did you know that nasturtiums are one of the few plants where everything is edible — roots, leaves, flower, stem & seeds? My garden is incomplete with out them. Though every couple years they tend to get the life sucked out of them by aphids.

Hi, Jim — I didn’t know about the edible roots. I wonder if the flavor or nutritional value is worth the trouble. Seems to me I’ve seen the seeds pickled like capers. Debra

Calgary Garden Coach March 16, 2010, 8:01 am

Monet planted and painted them at Giverny – how sophisticated is that?

Monet loved bright colors, and flowers planted in swaths. Debra

Salix March 16, 2010, 8:50 am

I love nasturtiums too. But here in my clay soil they don’t always do that great. As Jim, I always sow some – for the beauty of the plants and the taste of the flowers.
A flower topping a salad, desert, or anything else benefitting from the colors and the taste, always ads a wow factor.
Lene

Hi, Lene — You know what’s gorgeous? A salad decorated with nasturtiums and blue borage flowers (which have a delicately sweet flavor). You might add a few society garlic blossoms, too—they’re lavender, and lovely, but have a strong flavor. Debra

Sweet Bay March 16, 2010, 9:02 am

Gorgeous displays of nasturiums. Unfortunately they tend to burn up in my garden in the summer heat.

Mine, too. For me, they’re spring annuals that die back if they come up too early and frost gets them, or if late spring/summer heat stresses them. One heat wave in May and they’re toast. But in any case, I pull them out in June or July, when they’re starting to look ratty. (For that matter, I pull them out whenever they’re growing where I don’t want them.) I do generally have nasturtiums year-round, though, in microclimates where they’re protected and get adequate moisture. If I want nasturtiums to decorate salads, I can generally find a few sprawling beneath my citrus trees, even in August or January. Debra

Cameron (Defining Your Home) March 16, 2010, 9:03 am

I’m trying a peach color this year along with the usual hot colors. Did you know that rabbits and deer don’t eat them, but we do?

Oooh, peach! Sounds lovely. Good to know nasturtiums are deer/rabbit resistant. Debra

Darla March 16, 2010, 9:17 am

I love nasturtiums and am trying the vining type this year….don’t forget to file your seeds for faster germination!

Hi, Darla — Thanks for the tip. I scarify other seeds, such as morning glories, but assumed nasturtiums didn’t need it. Debra

Hap March 16, 2010, 10:13 am

My tortoises love them and have denuded the back yard of any they can reach… luckily they grow feral throughout Berkeley and I can pick them a bouquet salad easily but can’t have them in the garden.

Feral tortoises? LOL. I know you meant nasturtiums, Hap, but at first read I envisioned herds of tortoises slooowly munching their way through hillsides, canyons and back yards.

Loree / danger garden March 16, 2010, 11:43 am

Nasturtium are one of those plants that everyone says are so easy to grow…but I fail every time. Mine just never take off. I see them growing in many gardens here in Portland where they look so beautiful, but never in mine!

Hi, Loree — Maybe you’re being too nice to them? I think most of us would agree that they’re one step up from weeds. Try planting them in an area of your garden where nothing else grows. Don’t amend the soil and don’t water them (rainfall only). In the Pacific Northwest, they’ll likely want full sun. Here in SoCA, especially inland, they prefer dappled shade. Debra

Jayne March 16, 2010, 1:49 pm

Nasturtiums remind me of my childhood in England. I especially love those last two photos of them vining around the garden furniture.

Interesting, Jayne. I don’t associate nasturtiums with English gardens—probably because of all that orange, and I think of English gardens as pastels. Debra

brian March 16, 2010, 2:17 pm

I love them, I love them, I love them. If they were a girl I’d marry them.

My only issues: aside from the massive spring bloom, I’m always fighting a slow war against the black aphids which overwhelm them. If there’s a solution I’d love to hear it.

The other isn’t a problem so much as a puzzle. No matter many times I buy new color hybrids or pluck seeds from other neighborhood spots, I always end up with 85-90% of the same default bright orange flower. Can’t figure out why. Finally have a small colony going of a lighter, creamier orange and the occasional deep red flower.

Hi, Brian — I don’t have an aphid problem on my nasturtiums probably because ladybugs and lacewings eat them. Also, I grow my nasturtiums on the dry side, and my area has low humidity. Try spraying the aphids with dilute rubbing alcohol (50/50 alcohol/water).

Re default orange flowers, it’s likely the seeds aren’t “true” to the parents, and revert. Doubtless that’s what keeps seed companies in business, when it comes to exotic hybrids. Personally, I suspect I have an abundance of orange nasturtiums because I can’t resist picking unusual ones for boquets. Once the flower is gone, so is its seed-creating potential. Debra

Helen March 16, 2010, 3:15 pm

Gorgeous flowers – I have a packet of seeds ready to sow as soon as the weather warms up. I hope mine look as lovely as some of yours

Hi, Helen — Thanks! I’m sure they will. I’m glad my photo essay has given you some nasturtium anticipation! Debra

Gillian March 16, 2010, 5:31 pm

I think they are my favourite flower. I remember picking them as a child, and also loved how you described the dancing water droplets! I have put seeds into every bare spot and anxiously awaiting their cheery faces.

Hi, Gillian — They were one of the first things I planted when I began gardening, and they’ve come up dependably (maybe too much so) ever since. Debra

Albin March 17, 2010, 12:39 pm

I first fell in love with them in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, they are everywhere here in the bay area.
Green Jeans Nursery in Marin has a wonderful selection of seeds :—‚)*

Hi, Albin — Good to know. Yes, I could see how the Bay Area would be ideal. Nasturtiums like maritime climates. They’ve naturalized in San Diego’s coastal canyons, along with carprobrotus, the only invasive succulent. — Debra

Anna Flowergardengirl March 17, 2010, 11:58 am

I love them! Alaska might be my favorite.

Hi, Anna — I wonder why they call them ‘Alaska’—I doubt they grow there readily. Probably because the leaves are variegated with white, suggesting snow. Debra

chuck b. March 17, 2010, 2:01 pm

Nasturtiums make great ground-covers in certain situations. I think they belong in every well-tended vegetable garden where they help keep direct sunlight off the soil. I also like them in situations where they naturalize, usually in shade with moist air. As Albin indicated, they naturalize in Golden Gate Park. The leaves attain gigantic proportions and become remarkable specimens, imo.

However, I don’t like nasturtiums in no maintenance landscapes where they tend to smother. I don’t like any smothering. There’s a fine line between boisterous, trailing elegance and smothering, stifling invasiveness.

Also, I personally don’t like them in full sun, drought-tolerant conditions where they make smaller leaves turn a paler green and die and persist on the vine. The overall texture of the plant becomes busy and cluttered. The plants themselves look stressed and I feel stressed looking at them. I prefer a California poppy for that orange too. I tend to grow the yellow forms in my garden as filler. Both orange and yellow flowers look great adorning a bowl of guacamole or piled on a salad, however. :)

All good points, Chuck. I completely agree! — Debra

Heather's Garden March 17, 2010, 11:14 pm

I’m glad I’m not a sophisticated gardener!

LOL. Me too! — Debra

Christine B. March 18, 2010, 3:52 pm

We grow Nasturtiums here, too. I even grow ‘Alaska’ though my favorite might be ‘Empress of India.’ I’ve only ever had them in containers, where they perform very well, so I think after reading this post and the comments that I will give “in ground” a try.

Christine in Alaska

And I should try growing them in hanging baskets! Hmm. Wouldn’t they be gorgeous with blue or purple lobelia? — Debra

Pam/Digging March 25, 2010, 9:54 am

I adore nasturtiums, as much for the pretty leaves as that happy orange flower. You don’t see them much in Austin because the heat gets them so quickly. But the next time I have the chance I’m going to try bouncing a drop of water in a leaf.

Absolutely, Pam. The water-drop bounce is a must-do. ;+) Debra

Nancy McDonald March 26, 2010, 4:27 pm

THANK YOU for writing about some of my favorite annuals. In far northern Michigan, they do very well all summer, until frost. One common misconception, though, is that nasturtiums need lousy soil and neglect in order to bloom well. Mine always failed until I sowed them in ordinary (HA!) good garden soil. Perfect drainage does seem to be a requirement, however.

We’re growing some of the old varieties, such as ‘Empress of India’ and ‘Moonlight’ in the historic iris garden this year. Lovely!

Nancy

Hi, Nancy — Oh, I’ll bet they’re gorgeous with irises! — Debra