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August 25, 2011

Grow Nasturtiums for Natural Health

by Val Reynolds
Nasturtium © S Chesterman

Nasturtium © S Chesterman

Tropaeolum majus also known as Indian Cress 

Nasturtiums are bright – see Google page of pictures.  They range through yellow-orange to fiery red annuals. This is a plant for which the phrase ‘getting the most out of a plant’ really rings true. Growing nasturtiums is easy. All parts are edible – the flowers, leaves and seeds.

You can plant nasturtium seeds in a bed, border, to climb against a fence, or in containers and hanging baskets. Nasturtiums are easy to grow, in full sun or partial shade. They prefer moist, well-drained poor to ordinary garden soil; too rich a soil results in a profusion of lush green leaves but this is at the expense of flowers. The climbing, trailing and dwarf varieties readily self-seed or the seeds can be gathered and started in pots in the greenhouse.

Good introduction to natural history for children

They’re great for children to plant, not only as the largish seeds are easily held by small fingers but they are fairly quick to germinate and grow. And if you show children how to sow lettuce and radish seeds beside the nasturtiums, there’ll be benefits, both for the plants’ health and the children’s knowledge.

Buds, flowers, leaves and seeds are all edible and quick to pick, contain vitamin C and, belonging to the Cruciferae (mustard) family, also contain a type of mustard oil, benzyl isothiocyanate, with a peppery taste. This oil is not only very useful in salt and pepper-free diets, but possesses antifungal properties and impedes the growth of bacteria and viruses.

Nasturtiums © Pintail

Nasturtiums © Pintail

Originating in Bolivia and Columbia, seeds were brought to Europe from Peru by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century and hence became considered a symbol of conquest and victory.

Nasturtiums are planted in the spring, once the danger of frost is over. They can be used not only for decoration in the flower garden but also amongst vegetables, as a companion plant for radishes, whilst their pungent smell can be utilised by careful siting, to repel or attract pests.

Use nasturtiums as a natural repellent

Woolly aphis can be repelled from apple trees by planting nasturtiums around the base of the tree, or by spraying affected branches with an infusion made from the whole plant, while a few nasturtiums near tomato plants and broccoli can deter whitefly. On the other hand, blackfly find the smell attractive, so adding a few nasturtiums near broad beans will help to lure them away to the nasturtiums, subsequently nipping off any attacked parts. When frosts appear, the stems can be chopped up and added to the compost heap.

In natural medicine, fresh leaves can be used for combating infections of the urinary tract and the respiratory system.

Using nasturtiums as a natural remedy

Juice from leaves (liquidised and strained) can be of benefit as a remedy for coughs and bronchitis, while liquidising and straining the fresh leaves and stems produces a liquid which will ease skin irritations and painful muscles, and act as an antiseptic for wounds.

Dried seeds can be powdered for use as a mild laxative; or crushed to a pulp, then sandwiched between two layers of muslin or cheesecloth, with a plate above and beneath and placed over a pan of boiling water to produce a hot poultice to bring spots and boils to a head.

The naturally occurring sulphur in the plant can be utilised to make a hair and anti-dandruff lotion. Place one large handful of leaves and a cup of vodka in a wide-necked screwtop jar, cover and keep in a warm place for two weeks, shaking the jar once a day. Then strain it repeatedly until a clear lotion is produced and apply it to the scalp with a cottonwool pad, once or twice a week, ensuring no lotion enters the eyes.

Recipes for nasturtiums 

In the kitchen, the flowers will look attractive while adding texture and flavour to food. Those flowers with a long spur at the base, have a drop of sweet nectar giving a sweet/sour flavour. When picking, if you find tiny, black, pollen beetles on the flowers, put the stems in water, cover the whole with a brown paper bag, place, preferably outside, in a dark spot (away from the wind), to allow the beetles to drop off and go elsewhere. Nasturtium petals can be added to omelettes and cream cheese for extra flavour, while petals or the whole flowers can be scattered over lettuce for salads. As an additional salad ingredient, wash some leaves, pile on top of one another, and then roll up, slice into strips and toss in a vinaigrette

Make the vinaigrette from

• 2 tablespoons oil
• 1 dessertspoon vinegar (half the normal quantity due to the strong flavour of the nasturtiums)
• salt and pepper, adding fresh seeds, whole, or crushed with a fork

To pickle the seeds for use as mock capers, pick the seeds on a dry day, wash and then soak them for 12 to 24 hours in a brine of 57g (2oz) salt to 570ml (1 pt) water. Drain and then put them in small jars, filling to 13mm (1/2 inch) of the top. Cover them with cold spiced vinegar in the proportions 570ml (1pt) vinegar, 6 peppercorns, 2 bay leaves and 2 teaspoons salt, or for a more spicy result, replace the bay leaves with a slice of horseradish root, 1 clove and 2 tarragon leaves. Seal the jars and try to keep them for 12 months before using.

For a salt and pepper-free diet, ripe nasturtium seeds can be ground and kept for use in tightly-stoppered bottles. This was done during World War II but for different reasons – pepper was very expensive and sometimes unobtainable. Adding a little salt will improve the flavour.

Among other recipes, the pickled seeds can be added to martinis; relish can be spread on the leaves, then rolled up and loosely tied with a long-stemmed flower – try a relish of cream cheese, chopped walnuts and raisins, or mix tuna, parsley and mayonnaise. Or for a different effect, large flowers can be stuffed with a teaspoon of the cheese or tuna relish.

Add up all these reasons and I think you’ll agree that nasturtiums are certainly well worth growing and utilising.

Sìne Chesterman’s interest in gardening and botany started at an early age with her own patch in her parents’ garden, and learning which plants were natural healers. Brought up with old and tested remedies, and gardening methods, now termed ‘organic’, she still practises natural ways of pest control.  

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