Gardening Articles: Flowers :: Perennials

Durable, Delectable Nasturtiums

by Charlie Nardozzi

I can't think of better annual flowers than nasturtiums. Not only are they fast and easy to grow--a bonus where the growing season is short -- but they look and taste good, too.

In fact, nasturtiums are so easy to grow that many home gardeners overlook them. To provide quick summer color, I plant nasturtiums at the ends of raised beds or along the edge of a flower border. The plants grow well in full sun or part shade, and bloom all season. And you can eat almost the whole plant. What more could a hurried, hungry gardener ask?

The nasturtiums home gardeners know and love are the two most common species: Tropaeolum majus, the trailing type or T. minus, the bush type. But note that some bush varieties trail a bit, and some trailers are less vigorous than others and almost bushlike. Although most often grown as annuals, nasturtiums are, botanically, herbaceous perennials; that is, they die to the ground in fall and grow again the next spring. In frost-free areas such as coastal California, they grow like weeds, with 6-inch diameter leaves atop 20-foot-long stems sprawling year-round. A few lesser-known species are perennial to USDA Hardiness Zone 7, and although they're a challenge to grow, they offer gardeners unique flower and foliage forms.

Colorful Choices

When you're choosing varieties to grow, first decide whether you want bush or trailing kinds. Consider the unusual double flowers of the camellia-like types, too. In addition, some varieties have variegated foliage that's attractive even when the plant is not flowering. The accompanying chart provides more details about the best varieties.

Trailing Nasturtiums. These nasturtiums have bigger flowers and leaves but don't produce as many flowers as the bush varieties do. They look great in hanging baskets, sprawling on a bed like a ground cover, or cascading over the edge of a raised bed. A vigorous trailing type, such as 'Tall Trailing Mix', can be trained on a fence as a climber. I plant this variety between tepees suorting pole and scarlet runner beans, and by midsummer I have a striking tepee of multicolored nasturtium flowers and delicious scarlet runner and pole beans to harvest and enjoy. 'Jewel of Africa Mix', another notable trailing type, features variegated leaves and a colorful combination of flowers.

Bush Nasturtiums. My favorite bush type is the variegated 'Tip Top Alaska Mix', an improved selection from the original 'Alaska' variety. Although it's not as floriferous and vigorous as other bush varieties, the vivid leaf markings more than make up for the meager flowering. Bush-type nasturtiums look great in window boxes and containers, or edging a path or border.

Flower Forms and Colors. Although several seed mixes, such as Whirlybird, offer a variety of flower colors, some of my favorites are the single-colored varieties. The scarlet flowers of 'Empress of India' contrast beautifully with its blue-green leaves. Although listed as a bush form, this one tends to trail to 1 to 2 feet long. 'Moonlight' (yellow and trailing) and 'Salmon Baby' (salmon with bush habit) offer more dramatic single-hued flower color.

The most unusual varieties have double flowers. These actually aren't new: They are rediscovered heirlooms dating back to the late nineteenth century. They look much like camellias or dahlias, so you'd be hard-pressed to recognize these flowers as nasturtiums. 'Apricot Twist' (apricot splashed with red) and 'Hermine Grashoff' (red) are two trailing types that don't form seeds and are available only as rooted cuttings. These nasturtiums aren't as vigorous as other trailing types and grow better in hanging baskets or containers.

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