I love nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus): they grow quickly and provide a riot of hot-coloured flowers and juicy round leaves throughout my garden in pots and containers, trailing over walls and fences all summer long. They are good value too, for the thrifty gardener: a single plant can cover three square yards, as well as being one of the easiest plants to cultivate, thriving on neglect, and not even minding whether they are in the sun or the shade. In the autumn, I save the many seeds they produce for next year’s crop.
The sixteenth century English herbalist Gerard considered it a kind of cress because it has a spicy, peppery taste and grows in a similar way, and described it alongside common watercress (Nasturtium officinale), though the plants are unrelated. This is where it gets its common name ‘nasturtium’ (literally ‘nose-twister’ from the spicy taste); it is sometimes still called Indian cress.
Nasturtiums come from South America and the Incas used them as a salad crop. Indeed, all parts of Tropaeolum majus are edible – the flowers, leaves and seeds. Nasturtium leaves are rich in Vitamin C and contain flavonoids, iron, sulphur, manganese and amino acids, while the flowers contain vitamins B1, B2, B3 and C and as well as manganese, iron, phosphorus and calcium. The pretty flowers have become quite a fashionable garnish for salads today, though this is merely a modern rediscovery of an old practice. The flowers taste slightly peppery, rather like a mild watercress or rocket. The leaves have a stronger, more piquant taste, so pick the leaves young and add them chopped or shredded to salads or pop directly into a sandwich.
Pickled, unripe nasturtium seeds have long been used as ‘poor man’s capers’. (Real capers are pickled buds from the caper bush).
Poor Man’s Capers
Use the still green unripe nasturtium seeds. Drop them into a jar and cover with spiced vinegar.
The flowers, leaves, seeds are used medicinally, but they must be used fresh, which may be why they don’t feature in treatises on herbalism very often. The plant contains compounds that help loosen phlegm, and make breathing easier, so it is useful in respiratory tract infections. The leaves have been found to contain powerful antibiotic, antimicrobial and antioxidant compounds, as well as vitamin C, and may help prevent and relieve coughs, colds and flu, as well as boosting immunity. It can be taken as a tea or vinegar made from the leaves and flowers:
3 tsp leaves and flowers
½ pint boiling water
Pour the water over the leaves and flowers. Infuse 10 minutes, strain and drink.
½ pint fresh leaves and flowers
1 clove garlic
1 pint vinegar (cider or white vinegar)
Put the flowers and garlic in a jar, and cover with the vinegar (add enough to make sure the plant material is fully covered). Seal and leave for a month, shaking daily. Strain and bottle. or make a nasturtium vinegar and take a teaspoon two or three times a day.
Because of its peppery taste, the astrologer herbalists placed nasturtium under the rulership of the planet Mars and the element of fire. Linnaeus’ daughter Elizabeth-Christine, a botanist herself, noticed that on hot summer days at dusk, the stamens and styles at the heart of nasturtium flowers, emit a spark. The flowers and leaves can be dried and added to incenses and oils of Mars and fire, or the plant may be used in spells, rituals, incenses, oils and potions for vitality, positivity, strength and recovery after depletion of mental and physical energy, and necessary change.
The plant has a strong protective reputation, perhaps partly from the symbolic shield shape of the leaves, although gardeners know that it is useful companion plant that helps repel bugs from the vegetable patch and orchard; it is said that woolly aphids and white fly are repelled by nasturtiums. Plant a red nasturtium by your front door (or have one in a hanging basket) to deter unwanted visitors and keep negative influences from your home. Daub Nasturtium Tea around your window and door frames for protection.
CAUTION: To be on the safe side, avoid medicinal amounts of nasturtium if pregnant or breastfeeding, if you have kidney disease or stomach ulcers.
© Anna Franklin, June 2021