Nasturtium – Who Am I?
I have often commented on the importance of using Latin names rather than Common names. For most of our industry this is reasonably common and practical but the world of herbs and edibles is not so easy. Many of our garden trees and shrubs are now known by their Latin names. Everyone can say and remember ‘Eucalyptus’, ‘Magnolia’, ‘Buxus and a myriad of other plants. However, when it comes to edibles the whole naming system that is used across the world goes out the window.
As we know, every plant has a Latin name compiling a Genus, species and, where relevant a cultivar name. In most cases they often have a common name that usually has some consistency across languages. Again with edibles this is not so simple. Some of the Asian herbs can have different name in each language and a different ‘English Name’ in each country.
Add to this mess the fact that many common names cover a wide variety of plants across several families and genera. Coriander refers to plants in the genera, Coraindrum, Eryngium and Polygonum. Mint refers to plants in the genera Mentha, Micromeria and Cunila. The name pepper refers to plants in the genus Piper, Schinus, Capsicum and Macropiper. Finally the common name can very depending on what part of the plant is being discussed.
As a qualified Botanist trained in the technical world of Academia I find the naming of food plants messy and frustrating. I feel most comfortable when talking about plants if we are discussing a plant with a single Latin name that is correct and logical. When we add a plant to our growing range we spend a fair amount of time ensuring we have the correct plant and understand the naming.
A very popular plant in our Renaissance range is Nasturtium. In this case I am referring to the plant Tropaeolum majus with the common names Nasturtium and not Nasturtium officinale with the common names Water Cress. The genus Tropaeolum is the only genus in the family Tropaeolaceae and has about 80 species all from South America. Another of the more popular food plants to come out of this part of the world. As such they made their way to Europe during the sixteenth century under the name of Nasturtium indicum and the common name of Indian Cress. It was given this name as that part of the world was still called the 'Indies' and the foliage and flowers have that delightful peppery taste similar to common cress. Carl Linnaeus renamed it Tropaeolum after Greek word for trophy due to the shield shape of the foliage and helmet shape of the flowers.
Most of the species have very attractive flowers ranging from the clear blue of the tender Chilean plant, Tropaeolum azureum to the red/purple/yellow flowers of Bolian plant, Tropaeolum tuberosum. The most widely cultivated species is Tropaeolum majus (some list it as an hybrid of T. majus and T. minus) which is classed as an half hardy annual in Europe but in most of Australia it will perform as a short lived perennial. It is generally grown by seed although to get best results for some of the preferred cultivars (like the double flowering Flame) cutting propagation is best.
The flower colours range from the pale cream Yeti to the deep of Empress of India and Black Velvet with leaves varying from speckeld green and cream of Alaska to the deep dark green of Red Ebony. Some cultivars have an upright habit and some have a cascading habit making this a most interesting plant for the home garden. It adds colour and form to any perennial garden or herb patch and also looks good in window boxes and hanging baskets. It is a tough and easy plant to grow liking drier poor soils. In cool climates the frost will knock it off but in more temperate and sub tropical zones it will grow and flower for most of the year.
All parts of the plant are edible and quite good for you. It has a fair amount of Vitamin C, iron, sulphur and calcium which are all key for a healthy lifestyle. It is also supposedly good for its anti bacterial, antibiotic and anti fungal properties in a well balanced diet.
The flowers and light colored leaves add a great splash of colour to traditional green salads and will bring to life most deserts and cheese boards. The leaves and flowers can be used in sauces, dips and dressings where they will give a soft peppery flavour and lift the other flavours. The flowers can be stuffed in the same way as zucchini flowers are done and the leaves can be used for making an alternative to the traditional dolmade. The flower buds of Nasturtium can be picked and pickled as a substitute for the more expensive capers. The flowers are excellent for tempura but have to be cooked very quickly.
This is a great plant fro the garden and the kitchen. Select a good range of colours and decorate the verandah and outdoor living space for this easy to grow addition to the home kitchen. Get your guests to pick their own living condiment.