Nasturtiums have been popular garden plants for decades, but were at the height of their popularity in the 1930’s and 40’s. They are not as common as they used to be. Nasturtiums dislike containers and unless transplanted when very small, they usually do not transplant very well. They are best from a direct sowing in a sunny site with average soil. Too fertile ground results in an abundance of lush foliage and very few flowers, or flowers that are hidden by foliage and thus invisible.
Both the flowers and the foliage are edible, and have a sharp, peppery taste. The seeds are large and easy to handle, making them good plants to use for a children’s garden, as they are easy to sow. They germinate in a few days and will bloom all summer. The flowers are very nectar rich and feed bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.
They are usually sold as mixed colours, but there are plenty of varieties that are available as separate colours. We recommend sowing a row of nasturtiums in the vegetable garden as they both look nice and attract pollinators.
So-called “climbing” nasturtiums do not actually climb; they merely produce much longer stems than other varieties and scramble and sprawl. This can be delightful or obnoxious, depending on the setting. They are often recommended for containers but are much better in the ground.
There are several dozen nasturtium cultivars available, some very old, some rather new and modern.We encourage experimentation! If you grow several varieties together, they will cross pollinate. If you are growing a particular heirloom you’d like to save seed from, grow it in isolation.
‘Alaska’- A blend of many colours with distinctly variegated foliage. Comes remarkably true from seed. ‘Jewel of Africa’ is very similar but is considered a “climbing” type, with very long, trailing stems.
‘Black Velvet’- Extraordinary, very dark, black-red flowers. Quite something in the garden.
‘Buttercream’- Very beautiful, pale yellow flowers. ‘Moonlight’ is very similar.
‘Cherry Rose’- I have also seen this cultivar listed as ‘Cherries Jubilee’. While there are no truly pink nasturtiums, this one comes close. It is a distinctive, very pretty pinkish red.
‘Copper Sunset’- Bright red flowers with just a hint of orange. Profuse bloomer.
‘Crimson Emperor’- Brilliant ruby-red flowers.
‘Empress of India’- A favourite with extremely dark, blue-green leaves and very dark red flowers. Gorgeous.
‘Gleam’- A very old series. If you just buy a generic packet of nasturtium seeds, this is likely what you are getting. If you remember a parent or grandparent growing nasturtiums, this is most likely the one you are picturing. ‘Scarlet Gleam’ and ‘Golden Gleam’ are both AAS award winners from the 1930’s.
‘Indian Chief’- A climbing type with dark foliage and intensely bright orangey-red flowers.
‘Just Peachy’- An extremely unusual, profusely blooming strain of mostly very pale orange and soft apricot flowers, often with hints of peach or coral. Stunning and worthy of wider use.
‘Ladybird’- Another old cultivar, with very bright straw-yellow blooms kissed with several bright red dots in the interior. A very cheery, happy looking flower. ‘Vanilla Berry’ is very similar but a pale, soft yellow instead of gold.
‘Milkmaid’- Very pale yellow; this is as close to white as you will get in a nasturtium.
‘Spitfire’- Brilliant pumpkin orange on scrambling stems.
‘Vesuvius’- Around for at least 75 years, this is an interesting strain with apricot, salmon, soft orange, and pale sunset colours. Very pretty.
‘Whirlybird’- Probably the most diverse series in terms of colours- you could get almost any shade here! This is an old series, long popular, and very distinctive in that the blooms lack the distinctive spur that nasturtium flowers are known for.
There are also two very peculiar nasturtiums that are worth mentioning. The garden flower that we now know as nasturtium comes from South America. After their discovery, they quickly became popular in Europe and the English, the French, the Germans, the Spanish, the Italians, and the Dutch were soon all very familiar with these plants. In the course of selective breeding, some extremely interesting cultivars with sprawling, trailing stems and fully double flowers were developed. These blooms produced no nectar or pollen and no viable seeds. However, they were very striking, they flowered intensely, and they could be propagated easily from cuttings. They also did infinitely better in containers than other nasturtiums did, and that’s how they were grown. These varieties were believed to have been developed in Italy in the 1760’s, and from there made their way to England. They appear in a number of the floral paintings from that era, but were believed to have been lost. They were rediscovered in France in the 1980’s, nearly two centuries after they had vanished! The gardening world was much astonished, to say the least. They are now occasionally available for purchase in Canada. One of them is called ‘Hermine Grashoff’, with bright, orangey red blooms and the other has been named ‘Apricot Twist’, with soft orange to pale apricot flowers. Both are splendid in baskets, containers, and barrels and can be wintered indoors and carefully propagated. They flower exuberantly and offer gardeners a fascinating piece of horticultural history.