Zesty nasturtiums

Bob Dluzen
Special to The Detroit News

Nasturtiums are real overachievers in both flower and vegetable gardens.

Not only are their flowers and foliage attractive, but every part of the plant is edible and they are delicious.

Nasturtiums come in a wide variety of colors such as this vibrant orange.

I’ve been picking nasturtium flowers and leaves to add to my lunch every day. Their spicy flavor is not overpowering with much less pungency than, say a radish that has gotten overly hot. Even though they are somewhat mild, the flavor holds up and complements other strongly flavored food. I happen to enjoy Kogel braunschweiger for lunch and a few pieces of nasturtium along with it make a fine flavoring. Most people add it to salads, especially the flowers, to add dramatic color.

Honeybees and other species of bees love nasturtium flowers.

The brightly colored flowers, depending on the variety, can be yellow, orange, maroon, pink or bright red, and you know with all of that color they have to be loaded with beta-carotenes. Ounce for ounce, the flowers have the highest concentration of luten than any other edible plant.

The plant is also purported to have antibiotic and antiviral properties. It is claimed that eating fresh nasturtiums will help in the fight against illness, so that is one possible good side effect of adding it to your salads.

Back in the olden days, when kids would play outside around the garden, children and adults too, would bite off the tip of the nectary and suck out a tiny sip of sweet nectar. I’ve done it and it’s a lot of fun to discover this natural sweet delight. However, most people’s taste buds are so jaded by all of the sugar that they eat, they might not even notice the subtle sweetness.

The long structure at the back of the flower is commonly called a spur and contains the flower’s nectar.

Nasturtiums are great companion plants in the garden. They have the ability to repel certain insects from themselves and that characteristic also carries through enough to protect other plants growing nearby.

Some organic gardeners make an infusion of either the leaves or seeds to spray onto other plants in their garden to discourage whiteflies, squash bugs and possibly other insect pests.

Speaking of insects, bees and other pollinators love to visit these flowers for both the pollen and nectar. Honeybees can only reach just so far into the flower to get to the nectar and have to leave the rest behind. Larger bumblebees have longer tongues and can get to the nectar left behind from the honeybees, but even they can't’ reach all of it. The bumblebees in my garden have learned how to cheat by nibbling a tiny hole in the nectaries then inserting their tongue through the hole to reach the last tiny bit of the nectar.

A bumblebee feeding from a hole chewed into the side of the spur.

Hummingbirds are the only nectar feeder that can reach all the way into the flower.

Nasturtium plants don’t transplant well, which is probably why you don’t see them for sale in the spring. Fortunately they are easy to grow from seed planted directly into the ground.

Nasturtiums are available in a wide variety of growth habits in addition to flower color. The dwarf varieties tend to grow into a small bush shape not much more than a foot tall. The larger vining type will easily reach ten feet or more in length and are very useful for climbing up tall trellises.

So where do nasturtiums belong, in the flower garden or vegetable garden? Both!