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Groundwork: Not-so-nasty nasturtium

By Adrian Higgins

Nasturtium is a finicky cottage garden plant in Washington but worth growing -- and eating. Both the distinctive, veined green leaves, round as a sand dollar, and the pretty flowers in reds and oranges are edible. Colonists called it Indian cress, recognizing its ability to enliven salads with its peppery bite.

The leaves and blooms were favorite salad ingredients of that foxy founding father, Thomas Jefferson, and he even served the seeds, pickled. Heirloom varieties abound today. At the American History Museum's Victory Garden, gardener Joe Brunetti has grown a variety named Vesuvius, a lovely mounding orange-flowered nasturtium. This is fabulous for beautifying the vegetable garden -- a border edged in a mounded variety like Vesuvius would add a lot of color and gaiety to the plot.

Climbing types are better suited for containers and placing behind walls and raised vegetable beds. They can get as long as six feet by season's end, and also look great trained up trellises and tepees. Spitfire is a classic climber, and Moonlight is light yellow that looks lovely, though I haven't tried it.

Monet went nuts over nasturtium, but his garden climate in northern France was better suited to their cultivation than ours. Nasturtiums are tender and will die after a good frost, but they also detest the heat that characterizes life in the garden here from early June to mid September. If you were being extravagant (and why not, since the seeds are cheap enough), you could start them indoors in mid-February, set them out in early to mid-April, and let them do their thing until June, and then pull them for something more heat tolerant, perhaps zinnias. Some folks let them struggle through the summer so they can bounce back in the fall, this is an entirely laudable approach too. They just lose their vigor in the heat and will wilt often in a way that makes the gardener feel a bit guilty.

At Chanticleer Garden in Wayne, Pa., a spring feast in a pot, including pansies, purple beet greens and sage. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

Another cheerful and edible flower is the pansy, and its little brother, the viola. The viola is best represented by the Johnny jump up, named for the way its seeds migrate and sprout randomly in the late winter for May bloom. They are more dainty and elegant in the garden, and on the plate, than pansies.

But pansies are pretty cool too, especially since they will bloom happily right through the holidays. An enterprising gardener could produce a late fall, early winter salad of lettuce, kale, arugula and mustard greens, to mention a few, all topped with willing pansies or violas.

Johnny jump up. A random rover. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

Joe makes this important point: If you are buying young pansies or nasturtiums to eat, let them develop a bit and just take the fresh growth, which you know hasn't been sprayed with anything nasty. This isn't an issue if you start the nasturtium from seed, which I recommend. It's easy and you get access to varieties of your own choice. Aphids can be a problem on both plants, especially the nasturtium. "I usually hose them off with water and occasionally use a horticultural soap," says Joe.

-- Adrian Higgins

Nasturtium, Green Bean and Potato Salad
6 to 8 servings

Perk up Thanksgiving's token green bean dish by adding edible flowers. Nasturtiums have a tangy flavor and come in a range of colors.

MAKE AHEAD: The green beans and potatoes can be cooked in advance, covered and stored separately in the refrigerator. The vinaigrette also be made a few days in advance and refrigerated. Bring to room temperature and combine with the nasturtiums just before serving.

From Smithsonian Garden education specialist Cynthia A. Brown.

1 pound small new potatoes or fingerlings, scrubbed
1/4 cup plus 1 teaspoon olive oil
Sea salt
1 pound fresh green beans, trimmed
1 1/2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon Dijon-style mustard
1/3 cup chopped fresh dill (may substitute fresh thyme, parsley or tarragon)
1 tablespoon capers, drained
24 to 30 organic nasturtium flowers, coarsely chopped, plus a few whole blossoms for garnish
Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Have a rimmed baking sheet at hand.

Toss the potatoes with a teaspoon of the oil; arrange on the baking sheet. Roast for 25 to 30 minutes, or until tender. Sprinkle with the salt.

Meanwhile, fill a large saucepan three-quarters full with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the green beans; once the water returns to a boil, cook for 3 to 4 minutes. Drain into a colander in the sink, then immediately rinse the beans with cold water until they are cool.

Whisk together the vinegar and the mustard in a measuring cup, then whisk in the remaining 1/4 cup of oil in a slow, steady stream to form an emulsified vinaigrette.

Toss together the cooled green beans and potatoes, dill, capers and the vinaigrette in a serving bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add the chopped nasturtiums and toss to combine. Garnish with the whole blossoms.

Serve at room temperature.

Per serving (based on 8): 130 calories, 2 g protein, 15 g carbohydrates, 7 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 50 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 1 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  | November 8, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork, Recipes  | Tags:  Adrian Higgins, Groundwork, recipes  
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