Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) are quintessential high summer with their cheerful, edible flowers, lily-pad-like foliage, and distinctive peppery scent. Seed can be planted right into the soil now - a perfect gardening project for kids whose little hands can easily grasp big nasturtium seeds. Poke the seeds into lean, well-drained soil in a sunny spot in the garden, water them in, then leave them alone to sprout, vine and bloom all summer long. These Central and South American natives date back to the 16th century and thrive on neglect; don't fertilize, water sparingly, spray vigorously with the hose if you see a sign of aphids, and nasturtiums will flower through September.
A few favorites: 'Empress of India' is as dramatic as the name, with scarlet flowers and blue-green leaves. 'Alaska Mix' comes in shades of orange, gold, apricot and mahogany, set off by green-and-cream marbled leaves. I love the orange-throated 'Vanilla Berry' and the sherbet-toned 'Creamsicle' and tuck them around the edges of all my raised beds so they can bloom down the sides; I even plant them under a bamboo hedge where they surprisingly bloom even in competition with bamboo shoots.
Hummingbirds love to drink nasturtium nectar, and humans should take more advantage of their culinary possibilities. All parts are edible; toss pretty nasturtium leaves and blossoms into potato, pasta, green or rice salads; they make great tray or dessert garnishes, or float a few colorful petals in a cold summer soup. Renee Shepherd of Renee's Garden, one of the best sources of nasturtium seed, describes their spicy flavor as "reminiscent of watercress with a touch of honey".
Photos courtesy of Renee's Garden:
'Empress of India'