The vibrant edible flowers of the nasturtium are recommended for flavour and beauty.
I won’t lie and tell you I wake up on a bright spring morning dreaming of growing and eating nasturtiums — that is reserved for mulberries, boysenberries, asparagus and their like — but quietly through the spring, summer and into autumn, they give me months of pleasure and in a great many ways.
I know they are a little gauche — there’s something of granny’s handbag about them — but bear with me: there are perhaps a dozen excellent reasons to give them space in your garden.
Firstly, you get delicious flowers and fine young leaves for salads.
If you have yet to eat a nasturtium flower, make this spring the time to rectify that: together with courgette flowers, nasturtiums are the gateway into enjoying edible flowers.
There are two essentials when eating this bloom: firstly, blow into the centre (eating a bee pleases neither party), and, secondly, for the full experience, eat the flower whole.
The unravelling of flavours is quite unlike anything else in the garden: expect the taste of rocket, then honey as you reach the nectar at the centre and, finally, a generous hit of pepper right at the end.
This pepperiness can be quite lively: nasturtium means ‘nose tweaker’, with reason.
It is usually the case that the paler-yellow flowers are mildest and the more intense dark reds stronger.
I eat most when wandering about the garden and I’d recommend them in a mixed-leaf salad — that combination
of pepper and sweetness brings superb punctuation to the leaves. They’re great tempura battered and deep fried, too.
The young leaves are succulent, with a fresh, grassy, peppery flavour. Picked small and young, they are superb scattered through leafy salads and make an excellent pesto. Swizz a glass each of pine nuts, olive oil and pecorino with two glasses of small nasturtium leaves and a clove of garlic in a blender for the easiest of delicious sauces.
The seeds are really good pickled, creating a delightful homegrown version of Mediterranean capers. They’re also supposed to stave off colds if eaten raw by the handful, but I wouldn’t recommend doing this.
I remember one of the team back in the early River Cottage days trying this, and they steal your saliva to such a degree that he looked like Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke trying to squeeze yet another egg in.
“Nasturtiums are great tempura-battered and deep fried”
Nasturtiums are wonderful companion plants. I use them as a living mulch: they grow so vigorously that they’ll keep out most annual weeds, help retain soil moisture and prevent soil erosion.
They act as a sacrificial plant, with their leaves drawing cabbage-white caterpillars away from brassicas: this and their ability as a living mulch has me under-planting most of my brassicas with nasturtiums. They also repel a range of cucurbit beetles and bugs and attract black fly away from more vulnerable crops.
If you grow them, you’ll notice quite a wealth of insects drawn to their flowers. In attracting pollinating and
predatory insects, nasturtiums help maintain a healthy ecological balance in the garden.
Nasturtiums are so easy to grow. All you require is a packet of seed and the energy to cast its contents in the rough direction in which you would like to pick the flowers.
They are so accommodating that you needn’t give them the best spot: they will thrive in poor soil, too. For a more considered approach, sow in spring and push the seed an inch or so beneath the surface at the sort of spacing you’d like them.
Nasturtiums germinate and grow with enthusiasm. Expect colourful trumpet flowers from late spring well into autumn.
You can pick young new leaves at any time through the growing season and the flowers, too; simply leave plenty of leaves for the plant to photosynthesise and flowers for the bees.
The seeds can be picked reasonably freely through late autumn and into winter as they are produced in such profusion.
A single packet is likely all you ever need buy: they will self-seed happily in subsequent years. If this fills you with horror, either collect the seed before it falls
or pull up young pålants as they emerge the following year.
I mentioned about the typical impact of colour on flavour, so bear that in mind, but, if I had to recommend two varieties for flavour and beauty, they would be the dark-flowered ‘Black Velvet’ and ‘Tip Top Mahogany’.
Mark Diacono grows edibles, both usual and unusual, at Otter Farm in Devon
Mark Diacono tells us his top salads to plant to accompany barbecues this summer season.