Know Your Herbs: Nasturtiums
With all the work they do protecting and maintaining soil and plant health – not to mention the healthful benefits they provide to you when you eat them – nasturtiums have securely earned their reputation as a must-have herb garden essential. It’s no small wonder that their botanical name, Tropaeolum majus, is a derivative of the Greek word for “trophy” or “prize.”
Any gardener who’s cultivated nasturtiums can attest to the fact that those gorgeous plants make you feel like a total winner.
But how did their great reputation really start to develop? Is it just because they’re so darn pretty?
I mean, when I started to investigate the roots (pun intended) of nasturtiums and their worldwide fame, I saw straightaway how people were initially drawn to these plants – flowers don’t come more welcoming than these big, beautiful, bright and colourful blooms.
You gotta love those nasties (that’s what the cool kids are calling them these days, in case you were wondering).
Back in the olden days, humans would learn which plants to consume and which to avoid based on the said plants’ appeal to other animals sharing their environment. It only stands to reason that someone living in the nasturtiums’ native South American range spotted the frenzy of friendly pollinators surrounding these inviting flowers.
European conquerors and missionaries cheated a little bit by copying what Incans were up to; they came upon nasturtiums while travelling through and observing Incan settlements. The newcomers quickly noticed the medicinal and culinary uses of the flowers, and they returned to their respective homelands bearing seeds and seedlings to grow – to the delight of European royalty. Their popularity grew and they were greatly admired and sought-after for their ornamental beauty.
You know how those aristocratic guys liked to be flashy. What could be better than having such eye-catching, exotic flowers budding all around castle and estate walls? Even the famously lavish gardens of French king Louis XIV got in on the nasturtium action. Before long, westerners began to pick up on the fact that they’re edible.
Overseas travellers used the flowers, rich in vitamin C, to supplement their diets and stave off the onset of the sailors’ scourge -- scurvy. Meanwhile, the Inca people in Peru continued to add them to foraged salads and munch on them to purify their circulatory and respiratory systems – just as they had for hundreds of years.
They ultimately got their western name “nasturtium” from their flavour – the mustard oils contained by the plant give it a peppery bite which, to the European palate, was comparable to that of watercress. Watercress has the scientific name Nasturtium officinale.
Needless to say, with this long running list of positive qualities going for nasturtiums, the flowers bounced all over the globe. From the “New World” to the western world, along trade routes by land and sea to other continents, and eventually they found another home in North America.
So, are you ready to give nasturtiums a home in your garden? Now’s the time!