Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)
As this is the last article in the present series for this year, it seemed appropriate to celebrate autumn with a bold splash of colour to raise our spirits. We are probably all familiar with the cheery nasturtium which now comes in a wide variety of reds and yellows and can either scramble over a fence or stay neatly in a pot, depending on the seeds we choose. The name Tropaeolum is from the Greek ‘tropaion’ meaning trophy or sign of victory since the leaves are shaped like round shields, above which are the helmet-like flowers.
The leaves and flowers are high in vitamin C, minerals and trace elements and the unripe seeds, when pickled, are a good substitute for capers, so we tend to regard nasturtium as a decorative salad plant today. But it has a long and rich history.
Indigenous to South America, the nasturtium was one of the acquisitions of the conquistadores in the 16th century. It had long been used in herbal medicine in Peru and Bolivia as a disinfectant and wound healing herb and as an expectorant to relieve chest conditions and we now know that it has antibiotic properties too. It also contains large amounts of sulphur which is said to cure baldness!
The herbalist John Gerard was probably the first in England to get the seeds of ‘this rare and fair plant’ around 1597 and he grew it in his garden in Holborn. How excited he must have been when it first came into flower! It was considered a rare treasure in Elizabethan England, valued for its beauty as well as its efficacy in treating both scurvy and respiratory tract infections.
Gardeners have continued to grow this easy and rewarding plant ever since but more recently the flowers and leaves have become popular and fashionable once more for their peppery, spicy taste and can even be bought in supermarkets for such exotic recipes as stuffed nasturtium leaves and nasturtium pesto.
However, the garden will always be the best place to enjoy this friendly herb. Anne McIntyre, in her book ‘The Medicinal Garden’, tells us that ‘it is excellent when feeling tired and run down and prone to infection’. Let’s all treasure our nasturtiums while we can in these last precious days of sunshine.