Originally of Peruvian descent, the Nasturtium was once prized by the Incas as both a vegetable and a medicine. Both beautiful and nutritious, Nasturtiums will gladly make themselves at home in any garden offering sufficient water, light, and drainage.
“Nose-twister” is the translation of the common Latinate name Nasturtium, which refers to the flower’s delicately sharp cress-like taste. The Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus dubbed them Tropaeolum Majus because the unusual shape of the floral buds brought to his mind the trophy poles (or tropaeum) that ancient Romans loved to drape with their vanquished foe’s armor in the public square. Allegedly, Linnaeus also found the flower’s large round leaves somehow reminiscent of shields, and the dappled petals reminded him of blood-stained helmets.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that such martial and florid associations would be associated with a classically educated taxonomist. However Linnaus was no mere bookworm.
Described once by August Strindberg as: “a poet who happened to become a naturalist’, Carl Linnaeus can be considered one of the founders of modern ecology. Linnaus had the benefit of a classical education in Greek, Hebrew, Theology and Mathematics- all part of a curriculum designed at the time for preparing boys for the priesthood.
Despite his extensive studies Linnaeus led no sedentary life. He is reputed to have traveled by both foot and horse all over Lapland bringing along his notebook, various botanical and ornithological manuscripts and sheets of paper for pressing plants. During the course of his prodigious travels he became fascinated with the customs of native Sami people, the reindeer-herding nomads who once wandered Scandinavia’s vast tundras.
Nasturtiums are also bursting with both Vitamins A and C, providing the occasional muncher the influence of ample antioxidants with which to boost their immune system. They also contain mustard oil, known for its disinfectant, antibiotic, anti-fungal, and even anti-viral properties. Lastly, Nasturtium flowers boast the highest amount of Lutein (from Latin luteus meaning “yellow”) of any vegetable. An organic pigment found in carrots, Lutein is considered to be beneficial to one’s eyesight.
The floridly named author Buckner Hollingsworth, in her long out-of-print book entitled Flower Chronicles, once quoted Paxton’s Magazine of Botany. Therein a certain “Mr. Trimmer” reported seeing “luminescent scintillations” shimmering above his Nasturtiums.
To corroborate Trimmer’s strange conceit, Hollingsworth quotes no less of an authority than Erasmus Darwin, (grandfather of Charles) himself, who witnessed “an electric lustre” emanating from the crowns of the delicate flowers. Though the actual cause of this strange luminosity remains elusive, one could possibly attribute Darwin’s observations to the influence of other garden edibles.
If possible, try to gather your Tropaeolum in the moist early morning hours and pick only the most nascent leaves and tender buds. With their mild slightly radishy note, Nasturtiums will transform even a modest potato or rice salad into a dish that is both beautiful and delicious. You can also pickle the little pods in vinegar and salt in order to create piquant “Nasturtium Capers”.