Colorful, edible, butterfly-like nasturtium blossoms have delighted gardeners and cooks alike for centuries. At different times in their history, they’ve been considered a vegetable, a herb, a flower, and even a fruit! The name nasturtium comes from the Latin words for nose (nas), and tortum (twist), referring to a persons’ reaction upon tasting the spicy, bittersweet leaves. Renaissance botanists named it after watercress, (Nasturtium officinale in Latin) to which it tastes similar.
The garden nasturtiums we grow today descend mainly from 2 species native to Peru. The first, brought to Europe by Spanish conquistadors in the late 15th to early 16th century, was Tropaeolum minus, a semi-trailing vine bearing spurred, lightly scented orange-yellow flowers with dark red spots on the petals and shield-shaped leaves. According to Jesuit missionaries, the Incas used nasturtiums as a salad vegetable and as a medicinal herb. In the late 17th century, a Dutch botanist introduced the taller, more vigorous Tropaeolum majus, a trailing vine with darker orange flowers and more rounded leaves. Since Spanish and Dutch herbalists shared seeds with their counterparts, the pretty, fragrant and easy-to-grow plants quickly became widespread throughout around Europe and Britain.
Nasturtiums were commonly known in Europe as Indian Cress or a translation of “Capucine cress”, in reference to the flower shape, which resembles Capucine monks’ hooded robes. Leaves of both species were eaten in salads; unripe seeds and flower buds were pickled and served as a substitute for capers. (We know now that these pickled flower buds are high in oxalic acid and therefore should not be eaten in large quantities.)
Their ornamental value was also appreciated: flowers were used in nosegays, and planted to adorn trellises or cascade down stone walls. They became especially popular after being displayed in the palace flowerbeds of French king Louis XIV.
Thomas Jefferson planted them in his vegetable garden at Monticello from at least 1774 onward. Interestingly, in one entry in his garden book, he categorized it as a fruit amongst others such as the tomato, indicating that he ate the pickled seeds. Most nasturtiums grown at this time were the tall, trailing orange variety.
Over the course of the 19th century, breeders produced smaller, more compact types that mounded neatly into containers or formed a colorful, less sprawling edge to flower beds. Cultivars with cream and green variegated foliage appeared, as well as the vermilion-flowered Empress of India, with its strikingly contrasting blue-green leaves. These developments paralleled the gradual shift in the perception of nasturtiums from edible and herbal garden mainstays to viewing them as ornamental landscape plants. Monet let large swaths ramble along a walk at Giverny.
The flowers and long-lasting leaves were popular in Victorian bouquets and table arrangements. Nasturtiums were still eaten, however, and were known to help prevent scurvy, since the leaves are rich in Vitamin C.
The recent interest in edible flowers, herbs, ornamental kitchen gardens and heirloom flowers has helped keep a full array of old and new cultivars available for every possible use.
Watch Monty Don sow Nasturtium seeds