Welcome back to the Zaytuna Farm herb tour, we’ve met 8 herbal heroes so far. Rosemary, Yarrow, Aloe, Mint, Sage, Comfrey, Parsley & Lavender. So far our hosts have probably been familiar to a good many of you. They’re relatively common herbs, especially in a subtropical & temperate climate, familiar to many as both culinary herbs & medicinal benefactors.
This week’s herb is probably familiar to many of us, but she is still a surprise every time. Flamboyant & energetic she grows with boundless energy when she’s ready, & flowers abundantly. Gardeners and permaculturists, allow me to introduce you to Tropaeolum majus, or as she is more commonly known, Nasturtium. Originally from Peru, she’s now the epitome of a hard-working immigrant, and has naturalised in many places, including Australia, where you’ll find her growing around watercourses, urban bushland, roadsides and disturbed lands. Like many hard-working immigrants, she’s denigrated and defamed as a weed. But as many gardeners know a weed is just a plant that has learned to blossom where it is, rather than where others want it to be. A reminder that what we look at, not only looks different, but is different, from a different perspective.
In warm weather she is a very hard worker, but come autumn she’s a bit of a fair weather friend, and will either die back partially or completely with frosts, though in subtropical areas she can be longer lived, and is in fact, fairly hardy and drought tolerant, growing in either sun or shade.
Her distinctive round leaves grow singly from the centre of a long stalk, and the veins emanating from the centre make them look like tiny umbrellas. In established plants these leaves will sometimes grow very large, up to 20cm across. She will spread easily and grow to be around 30 to 50cm high depending on the growing conditions. She’s said to flower more vigorously on poor soils, and produce more leaf cover on more fertile soils. Her flowers have 5 petals and 5 sepals, which end in a nectar-bearing spur, much beloved by children.
She flowers & sets seed abundantly from spring through to autumn. Her flowers are bright, happy bursts of colour, often orange but they also come in shades of red, yellow & cream. She spreads by root division, cuttings and seeds, which are roughly the size of a pea and grow in groups of 2 or 3. In the Americas, Nasturtium is pollinated by hummingbirds, but in hummingbird-less areas, like Australia, you’ll see a variety of bees and other insect species visiting the flowers.
Nasturtium is abundant and fertile. She makes a great companion plant if her inherent sprawling nature is accounted for. Give her an inch and she’ll take a mile, so happily & brightly that you won’t even mind. She makes a good ground cover on neglected soil and the bees appreciate her abundance. Use her as a ground cover under fruit trees, where she’ll attract beneficial insects and keep the soil moist. She’s also said to make a good companion to brassicas and cucurbits. Shipard recommends using an infusion of Nasturtium leaves as a spray for deterring aphids.
Nasturtium In The Kitchen
If you’ve always thought of our dear Nasturtium as a weed, her flavour & utility in the kitchen will come as a pleasant surprise. Flowers and young leaves are a spicy and vibrant addition to salads, sandwiches, and cooked foods. She’s delicious on bread, or for those on a grain-free diet, the leaves make a spicy bread substitute. Try a Nasturtium pesto with the leaves, or use the flowers to make an infused vinegar.
Kids (and kids-at-heart) love to suck out the sweet nectar from the flower’s base. The flower is the mildest tasting part of the plant, and the leaves and stems have a stronger, peppery-spicy flavour, due to mustard oil compounds. The spicy flavour is less noticeable if the leaves and stems are thinly sliced in a mixed salad. Nutritionally, nasturtium is high in calcium, iron, sulphur, iodine, potassium, phosphate, and Vitamin C.
Nasturtium was traditionally used to benefit the respiratory and urinary systems. She’s believed to help reduce mucus and bring up phlegm, and have antibacterial, antiseptic, expectorant and anti-fungal constituents. She’s also said to aid blood purification and work as a digestive, and diuretic. The whole plant can be used and has been used for colds, coughs, flu, high blood pressure, digestive issues, urinary tract infections, constipation, candida and thrush.
Extracts made from seeds are said to be powerful anti-fungals. Juice from freshly crushed leaves and stems can be applied to ease itchy skin. A poultice of crushed green seeds is beneficial for bringing boils and pimples to a head. A tea made from the leaves and applied to the scalp is said to help reduce hair loss. If you’ve got chickens, feed some to them, as they have also been used to prevent and treat fowl pox.
Like all our other herbal heroes, there’s much more to Tropaeolum majus than meets the eye. In our garden we welcome hard-working immigrants, and if you’ve got a little extra space in your garden, need some spice or colour in your life, or just need some plants that will pull more than their weight, get yourself a little Nasturtium and watch her flourish.
The Wondrous World of Weeds by Pat Collins
How Can I Use Herbs in my Daily Life? By Isabell Shipard